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Sea Stories

by Various

Before you ask, I fish on sundays.” Said Alexander. “So no doubt I will go to hell. But you can go to the devil first. Now do you keep clear, boy, because some on us has work to do before he shoals move on. "

Reviewed by James Murray-White

It really lets this collection down that there is no introduction (an editor is not named): it would have grounded the book in something less vague than ‘sea stories’. I felt frustrated not to know how the 16 stories were chosen – was there a competition, a commissioning process, or are the writers all ‘friends’ of the Museum? 

Four of the 16 were either entertaining, well crafted, and worth pursuing to the end. Of these, Sam Llewellyn’s opening The Shoals stood out – his antagonist, Alexander Rourke, is a convincing grafter made good, born to the water, hardened by a life on it, hardened against his fellow men and deserving of a watery grave. 

Unfortunately, starting the book with this cracker sets the bar too high, and stories rapidly descend to the depths after this. The Doldrums by John Williams and Fresh Water by Chris Cleave are examples of stories that paddle around in the shallows for a while, hint at structure, plot and story, but then sail back to the safety of the shore. I lost interest in Margaret Elphinstone’s King’s Daughter of Norroway, and Desmond Barry’s Devonia and Getting there is half the fun by James Scudamore were frankly terrible: nothing more than dull efforts to get the sea into any kind of half-baked story. These writers should know that randomly throwing story ideas into the ocean often result in a drowning. Don’t bother with them. 

Bathyspheres by Niall Griffiths has some salt to it, as you would hope from such a dark and disturbing writer as this. He employs dense language to create an eerie underwater world, which his narrator tells in hindsight, from the quay of a fishing village, as a strange object is brought up. More stories of this calibre would have created a maelstrom of a book. Fewer stories of watches recovered from The Titanic, bereaved old men reminiscing in museums, and finding things amongst the dunes, because you end up with literary flotsam. These stories ebb and float away...

Thankfully, Jim Perrin’s The Snow Goose and Nick Parker’s The Museum of the Sea redeem the collection as the two closing pieces. Perrin takes us to the Inuit hunting grounds of the Arctic, in a worthy meeting of two civilizations dependent upon the sea for exploration and livelihoods. His writing echoes Andrea Barrett’s more detailed telling of the ill-fated Franklin expedition. Parker’s lighter piece pokes fun at pompous officialdom, on a quest (maybe) to create a museum; a autocratic director named Mallard and his zealous minions eager to please – hinting maybe at the bureaucracy behind the publishers of this very watery volume? Thanks for a laugh, Nick Parker. 

These four good stories would be better served with less unsatisfying padding around them – too much gristle, with little enough crab claw. This book is like the excitement of a day spent deep sea fishing – putting a rod into a vast ocean of words, with a quarter chance of pulling up an edible fish and a digestible story.

James Murray-White is a Jerusalem-based freelance journalist, writer (of all sorts), and documentary filmmaker. In his spare time he loves fish and chips and swimming

James' other Short Reviews: S Yizhar "Midnight Convoy"   


PublisherNational Maritime Museum (UK)

Publication Date: Sept 2007

Paperback/Hardback? Paperback

First collection?Yes

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What other reviewers thought:

The Independent