Five pages into her debut novel, The Luminous Sea, Melissa Barbeau brings the mythical to present-day-small-town Newfoundland in the form of a fantastic sea creature, discovered in the moonlight by a junior ocean scientist.

Vivienne has come to the fictional Damson Bay to figure out why its waters have begun to glow phosphorescent. While recording samples in a tiny dory, she examines the catch at the end of her fishing line, to find that she’s captured something science has not yet recognized.

Though the creature is vividly depicted, painting a mental image of it is an exercise in abstraction – a fish with “fins” and “flukes” and “scales,” it also has “arms” and “shoulders” and “hands” and is described, for the most part, using the pronouns “she” and “her.”

Vivienne soon realizes that she has cast a double hook – though breathtakingly exciting, her discovery is soon in the hands of her superiors, who begin a battery of invasive tests on the creature (they also do away with the pronouns “she” and “her,” favouring “it” instead).

Vivienne’s protectiveness over the creature evokes Elisa’s bond with the scaly marine biped in Guillermo del Toro’s 2017 film The Shape of Water. Like Elisa, Vivienne begins to see herself in the creature she’s discovered.

Though she’s berated by her bosses for calling the fish a “she” (“there’s a danger in anthropomorphizing,” they insist), her quiet conversations with Thomas, a local youth taking a break from university, suggest that she’s grappling with the humanity of her job: she asks, “How do you identify with a clam?”

Parallels begin to further emerge between Vivienne and the creature, both of whom are exploited and abused by the research team’s senior academics. The testing conducted on the creature is described as torture –Barbeau coins the term “reverse water boarding.”

And not only do Vivienne’s supervisors take credit for her discovery, she also becomes a lightning rod for the tempestuous mood swings of her intolerable and intolerant supervisor, Colleen. Even worse, she’s physically assaulted by the project team lead – an academic loser whose authority comes from sexual misconduct rather than legitimate scholarship. 

Duly critical of the power structures and hypocrisy of academia, as well as of the inhumane practices to which we subject the natural world in the names of science and progress, The Luminous Sea is about empathy and what it means to take responsibility for actions that negatively impact the vulnerable.

Though the narrative is somewhat predictable, the book’s imagery is sumptuous and its suspense well timed. A folk tale set in a recognizable time and place, it demonstrates Barbeau’s finely tuned flair for magical realism. More importantly, it reads as an understated parable about tolerance.