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  • Writer's pictureBarefoot Bookseller

All At Sea

Updated: Oct 24, 2020

On the island one afternoon, we were wading into a conversation about the ocean. It’s a daily discussion here at Soneva Fushi, perhaps due to the fact that the resort relies so heavily on the movements of this uncontrollable water-body. Sometimes questions are practical – how deep can you dive? Or what is that fish called? – but often they are more philosophical. Today was one of those conversations. I was talking with Hannah, the marine biologist, about her addiction to the sea and where it originated. ‘I’m not sure,’ she said. ‘I just know I have to be near it.’

She's right; there is something remarkably compelling about the ocean. Is it the mystery and complexity of the sea that makes it so fascinating? I often find myself staring at it, afraid to miss even a tiny movement lest it reveal something more about itself.

These unknowable bodies of water have provided inspiration for story-tellers since the beginning of time. Its narratives underpin our contemporary consciousness, at once bold, alive, and destructive, but also quiet and peaceful. Many writers have explored the incomprehensibility and magnificence of its depths, from Charles Darwin to Iris Murdoch. Herman Melville used the sea to question the nature of human existence in his novel Moby Dick; Virginia Woolf used it as a means to describe the movements and struggles of her depression. For many writers, the sea has represented journeys not only of the human body, but of the spirit. With its depths come excursions into what it means to be human.

My conversation with Hannah about her need to be near the water got me thinking about some of the contemporary books that have shaped my understanding of the earth’s greatest life force. It is really no surprise that writers, like the waves towards the shore, feel a gravitational pull towards the ocean’s depths.

Star of the Sea by Joseph O’Connor

Set aboard a boat of passengers travelling from Ireland to America to escape the potato famine, Star of the Sea is one of my favourite novels set on the ocean. Both gothic thriller and adventure story, it is told through a terrific range of mediums – letters, diary entries, newspaper articles – and extraordinarily drawn characters. Lords, journalists, maids, and laymen collide as Titanic meets Charles Dickens, with the menacing tension of Frankenstein.

Life of Pi by Yann Martel

One of the most epic adventure stories I have read, yet deeply philosophical, Life of Pi is one of my most memorable reads. When Pi loses his family while shipwrecked transporting animals from his family’s zoo in India across the ocean to the United States, he finds himself on board a small lifeboat with only a hyena, an injured zebra, an orangutan, and a tiger named Richard Parker for company. It’s an incredible story that acts as a parable about the extremities of nature, perspective, survival and love.

On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan

In the first days of the marriage, Edward and Florence Mayhew retire to the Dorset coast to celebrate their honeymoon. Far from experiencing newlywed bliss, the trip is awkward and chaotic. The crashing waves against which the novel is set create a mood that simmers with tension and finally breaks in a climactic scene on the pebbled shore.

The Odyssey by Homer (translated by Emily Wilson)

I know this may seem like cheating as The Odyssey is obviously not a modern book, but this new translation by Emily Wilson completely reignited my love for this poem and changed my perspective on it. The Odyssey is perhaps the most famous example of humanity’s dual relationship with the sea: friend and foe, source of inspiration and of destitution. Whilst the sea guides Odysseus home, it also leads him to unknown peril. Emily Wilson’s language sings from the very opening lines, and it re-frames the themes of home and time, and, in her own translation’s words, ‘tells the old story for modern times’.

We Swim To The Shark by Georgie Codd

Afraid of fish since she was a child, Georgie Codd sets out to overcome her fear by learning to dive and embarking on a mission to swim with the largest fish in the world: the whale shark. This beautifully crafted memoir is a journey of self-discovery, and a moving and inspiring meditation on travel, fear and grief that had me eager to leap into the ocean’s depths, and plan my next dive.


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