Everything about "By the Shore," Galaxy Craze's debut novel, is so hushed and tentative -- the prose, the relationships, the inconsequential incidents that constitute the plot and, inevitably, the point -- that the book constantly seems in danger of collapsing in on itself. Adolescence as Craze presents it is less the swirl of inchoate feelings it's usually described as than a perpetual walking on eggshells.
It may be that Craze is trying to capture something of the retreat from life that her 12-year-old narrator, May, has been made to share with her mother. Lucy, the mother, has left the endless party of '60s London ("By the Shore" takes place in the early '70s) and opened an oceanside bed-and-breakfast inn in a former girls' school. Lucy and May and May's little brother, Eden, stay there even through the guestless months of fall and winter. Change arrives (as it must in all coming-of-age novels) in the guise of a stranger -- in this case a famous writer who wants to complete a book at the B&B. He brings with him a young female assistant who may or may not be his girlfriend and whose possessiveness inhibits the attraction that seems to be growing between him and Lucy.
It's typical of Craze's style that this burgeoning romance seems to consist of nothing more than seaside walks, games of Scrabble and conversations of muffled intent. (Was ever a writer so inaptly named?) "By the Shore" very much wants to be atmospheric and haunting, but at times its sensitivity feels more like a parody of a first novel:
They moved in a little closer and huddled around the rock as though it were a tiny fire on a freezing night. There was a dent in the top and Rufus ran his finger over it. Then he looked up at my mother, keeping his hand on the rock. I saw him looking at her. The light from the torch shone on her mouth and neck and breath. When she turned to him, their eyes caught and he looked lost for a moment.
There are some good moments, mostly the ones with May reacting to her mother's new beau by clinging to her with girlish possessiveness. And there's a very good scene, in which May is invited to a slumber party by the most popular girl in her school, that captures the frightened feeling of a child's first introduction to big-kid behavior. But "By the Shore" is mired in a fug of sensitivity. With all the wounded feelings wafting about, you can't see the damn shore.