From Jamaica Inn to Treasure Island: the best books about the sea

一世 miss the sea. Through lockdown in particular I have envied people who live on the coast, and have read tales of wild swimming on cold mornings with deep longing, able almost to taste the salt and hear the waves, and sense, as I do when I look out to sea, that the universe is bigger than this moment we’re in. In times of crisis – individual and collective – the sea reminds us that all is not lost. Nature is reckless and beautiful; all this shall pass; she knows what she’s doing. We talk about feeling “all at sea” as a way of capturing confusion or loss, but for me it’s the opposite – a shimmering line between earth and sky, it offers consolation and perspective. We’ve needed this more in the last 12 months than at any time I can remember.

Ironic, 然后, that for many of us, the sea is tantalisingly out of reach. During this time, I’ve sought escape and reassurance that the shipping lanes will open again. Like the many moods of the ocean, its representation in literature overflows with variety: the sea means different things to us all.

When I think of the coast, it’s Cornwall, 和, in fiction, Daphne du Maurier. I bought my copy of Jamaica Inn at Shrew Books, Fowey, and read it in the bath at our rented cottage, listening to a storm gain pace. For young Mary Yellan, the sea is restless and stinging, foaming with smugglers and shipwrecks; it’s a savage, intimidating sea, echoing her surfacing passions.

In the same way, John Fowles’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman offers the sea as a mirror, tense with yearning as Sarah Woodruff stands and stares on Lyme Regis’s famous Cobb, awaiting her lover’s return. Sea as psychology is hardly better explored than in Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, The Sea, in which Murdoch employs the sea’s instability as a way of charting her protagonist’s deteriorating mental state. Shapes that Charles Arrowby imagines to be solid swiftly dissolve; the water shifts, regurgitating ghosts from his past. It’s a novel about impermanence, and the many forms haunting can take.

For action on the waves, Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson, with its brigands and buccaneers, takes the pot of gold. Survival at sea is elegantly judged in Charlotte Rogan’s The Lifeboat, in which the indifferent ocean plays witness to humanity’s struggle to balance compassion with self-preservation. In the tradition of nautical lore and sailors’ yarns, Life of Pi by Yann Martel uses the sea as a mysterious stage to a modern fable, presenting it as a magical, illusory, all-seeing pool from which dreams and nightmares spawn miracles.

In nonfiction, Raynor Winn’s The Salt Path harnesses the wildness of rock, sky and coastal walking in life-affirming prose, exemplifying the relationship between humankind and nature, in whose abundance there is eternal solace to be found. And I greatly admire Seashaken Houses by Tom Nancollas, which illuminates the struggles faced by those who built the first lighthouses in Britain centuries ago – the audacity of building anything at all in the middle of the sea – and of civilisation’s need to establish constancy in a medium that is anything but.

But my all time favourite is Lighthouse, Tony Parker’s portrait of a handful of lighthouse keepers, which intensified my appreciation of the sea through the voices of ordinary people: our connection with it; our fear or love or awe in its presence; and how its vast, wild splendour speaks to something ancient in us of endurance, strength and survival.

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