What the Waves Know: A Novel

Release Date: 
February 8, 2016
William Morrow Paperbacks
Reviewed by: 

Izabella Rae Haywood, teenage heroine of What the Waves Know, has lost her words. She has not spoken in eight years, ever since her father disappeared on her sixth birthday.

Luckily, Tamara Valentine, the author of this debut novel, has plenty of gorgeous words that she uses to give voice to Izabella’s silence and to describe the pain of being unheard.

“Every time I felt the words creeping up my throat, the thought of my father walking out beat them to the starting line and the words fell back inside me like dead butterflies,” Izabella thinks at one point.

And: “I pushed the words through the cracks of the vault I’d kept tightly sealed for eight years before I felt my throat harden to rock again.”

With such crystalline metaphors and an engrossing plot, What the Waves Know tells the story of the conflicted marriage of Izabella’s parents, Ansel and Zorrie; her father’s charismatic but reckless restlessness; and the birthday-eve fight where Izabella shouted at him: “I hate you! I wish you would just go away!” When he does just that, Izabella represses her memories along with her voice, blaming herself for his disappearance.

Now Izabella and Zorrie are returning to the (fictitious) tiny New England island where the tragedy happened, quickly joined by Izabella’s Grandma Jo, to see if confronting the physical reality might jar something in Izabella’s mind or vocal cords. 

On Tillings Island, Izabella meets (and doesn’t talk to) a wide mix of quirky, craggy Rhode Islanders and unfriendly teenagers. Most of them are well-drawn, original individuals, especially Zorrie, a rail-thin, angry, hurt, loving, workaholic art appraiser.

Subtly, the emphasis changes, so that it is Izabella’s relationship with her mother—not her father—that really becomes the heart of the story.

Among this pleasurable cast, however, Grandma Jo is an annoying cliché—the aging sixties hippie who serenely does yoga, meditates, whips up tofu macaroni and cheese, and swims nude in front of her granddaughter—all the while lecturing Zorrie. Even more annoying is the fact that Zorrie seems to lose every argument with her.

The book’s other main weakness is the pretentiously pseudo-mythic description of the island’s festival of the goddess Yemaya, a major figure in the Santeria mythology of American slaves. Valentine seems to be trying too hard to add some sort of spiritual depth to her story.

But of course the most important character in the novel is Izabella. And here Valentine, an English professor who says she was inspired by her work with autistic young adults, has created a fascinating, complex heroine who has so much to tell readers about communication and human relations, even in her silence.