Sarah P. Strong

Novelist and Poet

“Powerfully, edgy, well-written…an impressive first.”
—Kirkus Reviews

“Beautiful and affecting.”
—Publishers Weekly

“A truly original, indeed essential, novel.”
—Jane Summer

“A lovely, compelling first novel.”
—Ann Wadsworth

“This complex, mesmerizing first novel is both a traveler’s tale and a lament for the home left behind.”
—Regina Marler, for

“A remarkably solid debut novel.”

“Powerfully, edgy, impressive first.”
—Kirkus Reviews

Full Reviews

Kirkus Reviews
“A confident and powerfully voiced first novel in which a couple—damaged, haunted and desperate—find redemption.
     Having both just arrived at the airport in the Dominican Republic, Tollomi rescues Michelle from a customs nightmare. After this meeting, the two are inseparable, becoming more than friends and less than confidantes, sharing an enigmatic bond they’re afraid to speak of. Young and seemingly independent, Michelle has been traveling aimlessly,escaping something (even she’s not sure what—she suffers an amnesia that has erased chunks of her past and bits of her present), landing in the Dominican Republic to claim the house her grandparents bought in the ’40s on a whim.
     Tollomi, West Indies born, American educated, travels the world helping the dispossessed, barely acknowledging his own exile from the island of his birth. To others, the pair seem charming and bright, but they can see each other for what they are—Tollomi being beckoned by mermaids to drown, Michelle followed by the ghost of her grandfather. She finds a job at an American bar and begins rebuilding her house, while Tollomi searches for the remains of a revolutionary movement that seems to have died with the assassination of its leader. He meets Carlitos, a young man selling sodas on the beach, and the two begin a doomed affair in the midst of an atmosphere of burning gringo hotels and a fixed presidential election.
     As Michelle’s house nears completion, she becomes increasingly disturbed. Though suspecting the truth about her memory loss, Tollomi is too consumed with Carlitos (who may have ties to the torched hotels) to help her. The narrative is remarkably assured in weaving the futility of the revolutionary arsonist’s deeds (none of the hotels are really damaged being made of cinderblock) with the futility of Michelle and Tollomi’s continuing to believe nothing is wrong with the other. A dramatic conclusion brings the chance of a new life for both.
     Smart, edgy, well written: an impressive first.”

Publishers Weekly
“Sarah Pemberton Strong debuts with Burning the Sea, the story of two drifting souls who come together in the Dominican Republic. Michelle, an American and a lifelong wanderer, has just left a lover in Berlin. She arrives on the island and meets Tollomi, a young man from St. Croix whose history is just as fraught as hers, and each tries to fill in the gaps in their respective pasts. Michelle wants to rebuild a ruined house once owned by her grandparents, and Tollomi begins an affair with a local boy named Carlitos as various tensions simmer across the island. Strong’s narrative meanders at times, but overall her story is beautiful and affecting.”

Burning the Sea, a remarkably solid debut novel, contains a wealth of complex contrasts. The writing is at once lush and spare, dense and elegant. It’s a novel of shimmering dreams and slippery truths, yet it’s set solidly in the very real, dusty world of West Indian poverty and political unrest, with the devastating impact of invasive tourism as backdrop. Its paired central characters are American-born Michelle, a lesbian who travels the world to escape traumatic childhood memories, and Dominican-born but American-educated Tollomi, a gay man who travels the world because he’s ashamed to return to a childhood home he’s foolishly forsaken. In sum, it’s a book of many levels and much texture, slow to get going but with eventual impeccable momentum. First-time novelist Strong lived in the Caribbean for several years, so it’s no surprise that she brings its culture, its problems, and its charms to life so vividly. Her real achievement is accomplishing the same mesmerizing feat with Michelle and Tollomi, two heartbreakingly lost souls who, through finding each other, discover how to heal themselves.”

Regina Marler, for
“This complex, mesmerizing first novel is both a traveler’s tale and a lament for the home left behind. In the case of Michelle, a young American, her childhood home is barely remembered. But even when her body was sitting at the dinner table, her mind wandered: "I never knew when I was doing it. I tried to be my own jailer, but my mind was too quick for me. It slipped out between breaths, and I never knew it had gone until someone called to me from far away to come back and answer for my mind’s behavior." What propels her is a search for a truer origin, a spiral path that will take her to the Dominican Republic, where her grandfather once owned a dilapidated house. On her way, she falls in with Tollimi, a political worker with a gift for disguising himself, for slipping the bonds of identity, that is even better-developed than Michelle’s. Readers whose interest in the West Indies and Caribbean is stirred by Burning the Sea will find it makes a brilliant—and equally well-written—companion volume to Nelly Rosario’s novel of Dominican family life, Song of the Water Saints.”

Jane Summer, author of The Silk Road
“Sarah Pemberton Strong has done that wonderful thing. She’s created a truly original, indeed essential, novel. Burning the Sea, a story of intellect, adventure, and intrigue, explores what happens when we live with our ancestors and, more hauntingly, what happens when we don’t.”

Ann Wadsworth, author of Light, Coming Back
Burning the Sea is a richly textured novel of memory and rebirth—of the struggle to understand both the pain and mystery of the past and the passions and human connections of the present. This is a lovely, compelling first novel.”