Bite-size Books: An Ocean the Colour of Bruises

Stormy seas

A group of young people go on holiday, running away from the tawdry disappointments of taking the first steps into their adult lives. They need a few days revelling in their friendship on a warm beach, rekindling old joys. But Punta Silenyo is an empty, haunted resort. Is it the best place to forget their cares?

Isabel Yap doesn’t write comfortable fiction. Or maybe she does – maybe I just don’t read it. The name of the story serves as a warning shot: An Ocean the Colour of Bruises hardly sounds like a cosy bedtime read. If you’re not braced to weather a storm, this won’t be the story for you.

I liked it from the outset, because it’s clever. Obnoxiously clever. So clever that I’d been puzzling over it for a couple of paragraphs, trying to reconcile the number of characters with the number of bedrooms – and, crucially, door keys – when I realised my mistake. Having recently admitted that okay, yes, sometimes I love a story that’s written in the second person, I didn’t expect to be confronted by one written in the first person plural. I mean, it’s bonkers. However much we love our friends, we’re all individuals. There’s no such things as a collective point of view, is there?

Maybe there is, maybe there isn’t, but a little thing like that isn’t going to get in the way of Isabel Yap when she has a story to tell. So we are treated to affectionate character thumbnails, quick and dirty sketches that somehow manage to encapsulate each person and their relationship to the group with just a couple of sentences.

We’ve got five good friends – the one who can score dope; the model; the musician; the artist; the one with the decent job – in a rundown resort on an island that was once the scene of a terrible mass death by natural causes. The dead-eyed receptionist just completes the set-up: it put me in mind of a good horror movie right from the start (or maybe I’ve just watched Cabin in the Woods once too often). Surely this can’t end well.

Death is only one other song often played on these islands.

But while Yap is happy to play with tropes (and my word but she has fun doing so), she has other fish to fry here too. Ocean is about five friends trying to recapture a sense of freedom and potential that the post-university world is doing its best to beat out of them. It’s about admitting that adulting isn’t all it was cracked up to be, and that maybe – just maybe – it would be quite nice not to. It’s a horror story, but at least half the horror is the disappointment of reality.

I spent much of the story trying to second guess exactly what was going on and while it played many of the cards I expected, the ending still pulled the rug out from under me (my reading notes are simply: Shit Me – but imagine it said in resonant tones of layered awe).

And in the end, yes, yes you can tell a story in first person plural. Even a horror story. So well done Isabel Yap for channelling the gut punch of the early twenties, for playing the tropes like a pro, and for making an impossible point of view work. Well played.


An Ocean the Colour of Bruises can be read online at Uncanny.

Bite-sized Books is a weekly celebration of short-form fiction and you’re invited to join in! Share your recent review(s) of a short story, novella, novelette or anthology – add a link in the comments so we can share the love.