Globe and Mail Style editor Sheree-Lee Olson’s first novel is told from the perspective of Kate McLeod, a 19-year-old photography student who takes a summer job as a relief porter on a cargo ship in order to earn money to pay for her schooling. Kate is a rebellious soul who has turned her back on her parents and her sister; she scraps freely with the predominantly male crews on the two ships she gets hired aboard, and spends most of her free time going ashore to drink. When she gets hired onto the SS Huron Queen, she befriends Hazel, an older woman who serves as chief cook on the vessel and who becomes something of a surrogate mother to the restless young woman.
As readers, we are never outside of Kate’s consciousness or her interpretation of the events that befall her. Since Kate is both physically and psychically adrift, this provides the author with ample opportunity to inject a subtle ironic distance into the narrative. Unfortunately, Kate’s method of isolating herself from the world at large – through heroic alcohol consumption and repeated casual sex with her fellow crew members – becomes somewhat repetitive over the course of the novel. Especially in its early stages, the book seems like a litany of rotating faces on the cargo ship, punctuated by scenes of drinking and sex.
Olson’s prose is impeccable, burnished to a fine sheen and tinged with a delicate lyricism. However, the sensitivity of the prose belies the rawness of the content. One yearns for language that is more direct, less blushing, more appropriate to the material. The sex and violence in the novel – which are plentiful – are presented elliptically or in soft focus, which betrays the rough, unhewn nature of the narrative consciousness. Like Ibi Kaslik’s The Angel Riots and Michael Ondaatje’s Divisadero – two other recent novels that feature gorgeous prose married to rough subject matter – Sailor Girl is ultimately too pretty for its own good.