In 2017, I’m only going to read books about the sea. After my recent soundtrack of sea songs, my as-yet-unconfirmed flashback of The Old Man Of The Sea, and my spontaneous decision that the next novel will be very much about the sea, I was gifted several books over Christmas that were about the ocean. On a whim, I half-wondered if I could get away with only reading sea books this year — and then my excellent wife bought me a beautiful edition of The Sea Around Us by Rachel L. Carson, and that settled it. For me, 2017 will be a year of books about the sea, the shore, the coast, islands, ships, and the people and creatures and monsters that live and sail and fish in them. I’m really excited about this. Water is the element that draws me most — constant in its change — and I’m fascinated by the mazy weavings of the sea.
There are some classics I’m going to read — Moby-Dick, The Drowned World and Wide Sargasso Sea in particular — but almost all the books on my list are relatively recent and by white men, so I’m particularly keen to read work in translation, and by female and non-white writers. Recommendations very welcome in the comments below, please!
I’m going to include short reviews of each book, and publish them in order. Here we go…
1. The Un-Discovered Islands by Malachy Tallack
I really enjoyed this. Lovely prose, striking the perfect balance between the academic and the descriptive. The research and the sense of mystery are beguiling. My only gripe is this: the book is at its best when Tallack weaves his findings into some truly profound thoughts on human imagination, and at these moments the un-discovered islands sing — but these wonderful moments are isolated. Ultimately I wanted the book to be less collected, and more connected. For all that, it’s a genuinely transporting read, and one that I’ll return to.
2. The Sea Around Us by Rachel L. Carson
This is magnificent. Carson is praised for the beauty of her prose, and for making the science of the sea accessible — and both of those things are true. But what elevates The Sea Around Us to another realm is the nonchalant ease with which Carson connects and develops the staggering complexities of the oceans, building layer upon layer of understanding. It’s an extraordinary narrative, leading from the formation of the earth in fire to the mayfly existence of the smallest celled creatures, swarming in the dark. She captures events of such astonishing scope — the daily holocaust of plankton, the inevitable suicide of the tide — and makes them appear utterly normal and natural, and also infused with wonder and mystery. This is an extraordinary book, and everyone should read it.
A short, grisly, compelling read — a lucid daymare of a story. It’s hard to write too much about The Many without giving away the secrets at the core of the book, so please consider this a spoiler warning and read no further if you plan to come to the book cold. I loved the world of Wyl Menmuir’s isolated and suspicious little fishing village, and that poisoned sea with its toxic fish, carried away in crates by suited officials — the characters and their unfolding secrets hemmed in by the sea and the chain of anchored cargo ships. As the novel progressed, I increasingly wondered why Menmuir wasn’t digging deeper into this startling vision of the future, but then the book reveals itself as a profound and challenging allegory. The shadow play at the heart of The Many is both its strength and its flaw — while the novel works wonderfully as a sleight-of-hand on Timothy’s grief, I was left with the feeling that reducing that poisoned ocean to a state of mind, rather than a state of place, was also to reduce the scope and scale of the book. It starts outward-looking and expansive, and finishes introverted and reductive. The Many is a powerful piece of work, but I wanted more of Perran’s world, and more of the story — and that, I suppose, is exactly the point. Challenging and conflicting, but transporting and profound.
4. Fishes Dangerous To Man by Alan Mark Fletcher
Honestly, I only bought this one for the cover. It’s non-fiction for children, with brief overviews of Fishes That Sting, Fishes That Bite and so on, each brief chapter made real in short fictive episodes and these glorious illustrations. This cover though — what a perfect design!
5. Dora Incites The Sea-Scribbler To Lament by Geraldine Clarkson
I don’t know how I came across this, as I seldom share more than the slightest of tangents with contemporary poetry, but the name Dora would have grabbed my attention, and the idea of a Sea-Scribbler would have sealed it. And it’s extremely good. I only read poetry when I can read it aloud, and the roll and scan of Clarkson’s work is a delight:
When word comes from Gortin or Mannin / (and I’d thought they were all dead there), / or from Seal’s Rock — setting the curlews / looping and scraping for the sky — / I hear the empty rule of wind / on that thin mile / of white sand, collapsing / surf, the whistle of silence.
Sumptuous stuff, no? I particularly like how these poems play with gender and the body, the images narrated through a deft interplay of pronouns and perspectives — the brother and sister ‘sheepshanked since babyhood’ in William Lets Me Wear Her Ring — or the notebook ‘on my belly, reading me’ in The Dazzle And Flash Of New Sheets. Every collection has its gems, and this is no exception — Write Yourself In Winter is a perfect distillation of magic realism, while Miss Marple Loosens Her Bra is a melancholy meditation on unfulfilled desire. The title story hit me hardest. I found it hard to decode, and reached the uncomfortable conclusion that it explores a drowning — and even though I’m writing about drownings, the thought of a dead Dora is a little close to the bone.
6. The Loney by Andrew Michael Hurley
I sometimes think of extraordinarily successful books as stones into a pond. They throw out tsunamis of hysterical hype, but when the waves wash back and I finally come to read them, I find pebbles. I therefore approached The Loney with caution, given its astonishing trajectory last year — and there, in the pond, I found this fucking massive meteorite. It’s an extraordinary read, and I’ll be amazed if I find a better novel this year. The feral stretch of sand that shapes this book is both menacing and melancholic, and the atmosphere is equal parts Rebecca and The Wicker Man. The tension is guided with astonishing confidence — I have to go back to Fingersmith to remember feeling so deftly played — and Hurley’s restraint in releasing the plot is excruciating. It’s a ferocious piece of work, and made all the more terrifying by the ambiguity of the engines that drive it. A brilliant, brilliant book.
Argh. Almost, almost, almost. I wanted to love this book so badly. The subjects are my subjects — marshes and metamorphosis — and the stories are my stories — a girl becoming an eel, a boy becoming a fox. And the collection has glorious moments. With the opening stories, Starver and Blood Rites, I thought I’d found a marvel — but thereafter, the book softens. Piece by piece, the narrators become essentially the same, and in places Johnson’s pronouns leave her stories untethered and frustrating to read, long seesaws of she/he/she/he/she that numb the impact of the magic. Her imagination is ferocious, and I suspect she’ll write extraordinary books in years to come, but this one is a firework — pretty lights, but no heat.
8. A Summer Of Drowning by John Burnside
Naw. It’s extremely rare that I abandon a book, but that’s what I’m doing here. The ingredients are good — vanishings, an Arctic Circle setting, a living myth in the form of the huldra — but A Summer Of Drowning is simply interminable. Almost literally every sentence uttered by teenage narrator Liv is instantly contradicted, disavowed or weakened, and she spends so long diluting her own experience of the events, that the events themselves become as thin as gauze. Now, maybe this is deliberate, a conscious device to show Liv’s disconnection, and that’s fine — but it comes at the cost of giving a shit about what happens, which I don’t. There is almost no story at all in the first hundred pages, and having chewed my way through two-thirds of the book in search of a plot, I’m giving up. I’m told Burnside is a terrific poet, and I’ll seek out his work, but this is simply tedious. I’m glad to have read it at this particular point in time, though — as I approach the end of my redraft, A Summer Of Drowning has been a sharp lesson on the value of brevity. Onwards!
9. The Waves Burn Bright by Iain Maloney
Disclaimer time: Iain is a friend of mine. It’s difficult to review a friend’s work with any measure of distance, not least as I’ve enjoyed his books for years. All that said, The Waves Burn Bright is the best thing he’s written — consistently powerful, committing and complex. The core of the book is the tumultuous relationship between Marcus, a survivor of the Piper Alpha oil rig disaster, and his daughter Carrie. Like the volcanoes that shape their story, the relationship often simmers, and sometimes explodes. Weaving their lives together — their loves and losses, their tragedies and little victories — takes the book from cellar bars in Aberdeen to starlit mountaintops in Hawaii. The book is beautifully paced, and if I’ve any gripes, it’s that I wanted a little more space to digest the ending — more time to dwell on the journey. Friendship aside, it’s a terrific book, and I really enjoyed it. I’m bring quite sincere to say it reminded me a little of Iain Banks and his interwoven families — a Crow Road sort of a book — loss, distance, redemption.
10. Coasting by Jonathan Raban
Another abandonment. Raban writes with concision and precision, and his time at sea is always interesting, but I found his observations snide to the point I stopped enjoying the book. The people he meets along the way are hapless buffoons, and I struggled to find balance or compassion in his voice — for all that he applies the same razor to himself. The net result is overwhelmingly negative, and I didn’t enjoy it.
Yup, full marks here. Fun, concise and fascinating, this is a snappy look at the scientific arms race that finally solved the mystery of longitude, and thereby revolutionised travel at sea. Sobel’s success here is presenting the evolving quest as a competition between a handful of hare-brained individuals. Their quirks fuel the narrative, and leave the reader rooting for the underdog, urging him to make the breakthrough and see justice done. It’s good fun.
12. Moby-Dick by Hermann Melville
And here’s the big one. Call me Ishmael, bro. Honestly, I was dreading Moby-Dick, both by reputation and from the first few pages of prose, which I found rather clunky. But once I’d tuned my ear to Ishmael’s voice, it began to flow rather nicely. We meet Queequeg, then the Pequod. So far, so good — and then, from nowhere, Melville introduces dramatic vignettes, alternates chapters of story with chapters of industry, and then most startling of all, flips narrator — first from Ishmael to Ahab, and then around the ship’s mates. As the book enters its final quarter, the narrative moves from first to third person, and the final pages bring it full circle. It’s extraordinary, both in the scope of its structure, and also in its playfulness. It’s ferocious and fun. Some moments are tired and dated, and others — like the first killing of a whale — are genuinely shattering in their brutality. It’s an extraordinary book, and I’m delighted to have finally put it away.
13. The Drowned World by JG Ballard
Surprisingly disappointed. I came to The Drowned World with high hopes, which never helps, but didn’t click with it at all. Almost all of Ballard’s books consciously carry his philosophies, but I can’t remember any that wear it so plainly — much of the dialogue and interior monologues are sprawling, rambling ruminations on evolution, humanity and biological fate — often given over to entire pages of heavy-handed and unbelievable intellectual discourse. It feels like sacrilege to say so, but I found this dated and tedious.