I’ve always loved the sea. I grew up in southeastern England, not exactly on the coast, but only a few miles inland, with pebbled beaches, chalky rock pools, and crashing waves just a short drive away.
There’s not a lot of wilderness in the UK, particularly in the southeast. You have to pick your spot to find a place without evidence of human habitation, and when you get there, more often than not someone arrived before you and is tucking into an egg and cress sandwich.
But we are a small island, and so in many ways it’s the sea that acts as a reminder that nature is vaster, more powerful, and so very much more mysterious than ourselves. And while it can seem tame in summer, you don’t have to stray far from the shore to realize that the sea is the ultimate wilderness: exhilarating, terrifying, and vaster than any landmass on the earth.
Though I now live many miles from the sea in London, I still keep a tide clock on my kitchen wall, set to show the high and low tides for the coast where I grew up. So if, like me, you feel the call of “the lonely sea and the sky,” here are a few books set in and on the water to bring the ocean to you.
Master and Commander – Patrick O’Brian
Although I’ve listed the first Aubrey-Maturin novel here, I’d really like to suggest the whole series, because actually the first book is not the best, and the effect only starts to build after a few titles. Once you’re two or three books in, though, if you’re anything like me, you will be hooked. O’Brian is at the top of this list because he is, quite simply, one of the best writers about ships and the sea there is; the books are part chronicle of a friendship, part history of the Napoleonic wars, and part love story. However, the love is not really between a man and a woman, for although Jack and Stephen both woo and marry, they spend strikingly little time with their wives and sweethearts. Rather, it’s their relationship with the sea that O’Brian charts, over the course of twenty and a half novels, and I don’t think as a love story it’s ever been bettered.
Frenchman’s Creek – Daphne du Maurier
I’m a big fan of du Maurier and have recommended her taut psychological thrillers many times, but Frenchman’s Creek is something rather different, an unashamedly romantic account of a noblewoman’s love affair with a smuggler. Put like that, it sounds like your average bodice ripper, but du Maurier’s writing, characterization, and—most of all—love of the Cornish coast make it more than rewarding.
The Gracekeepers – Kirsty Logan
This dreamy, lyrical tale is set on a flooded earth, where a place on land must be earned and nomadic boat dwellers travel from island to island. Part speculative dystopia, part tender love story, Logan follows North, bear keeper to a floating circus, and Callanish, a gracekeeper who tends to the funeral rites of people buried at sea. But her greatest achievement is the evocation of a completely convincing watery world, with all that means.
The Summer Book – Tove Jansson
If you know her work only from The Moomins, Tove Jansson’s bleak, spiky adult novels might be a surprise, although the touches of strangeness and darkness in Moominland may have been a forewarning. They are all wonderful (also seek out The True Deceiver), but The Summer Book earns its place on this list for its haunting evocation of a remote island off the coast of Finland, and the small girl and elderly grandmother who live there together. Part meditation on aging, part evocation of the fragile friendship that forms between the island’s only inhabitants, part hymn to solitude and the sea, it’s a truly magical read.
The Wreck of the Mary Deare – Hammond Innes
This is the only title on my list that could honestly be described as a thriller, but it’s a cracking one and deserves to be better known. As the back cover has it, “The battered hulk of a huge ship looms out of the stinging spray of a furious gale. Only one man, half-mad, remains aboard, working without sleep or sustenance to save her from sinking.” It’s a page-turning read that leaves you with the taste of salt in your mouth and the sting of seawater in your eyes, and it tells you as much as you ever wanted to know about wrecking and the power of the sea.
Five books can’t even pretend to form a definitive list. If I were writing that, it should probably have Moby Dick for a start, not to mention Carsten Jensen’s We, the Drowned, Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, and Homer’s Odyssey. But each book I’ve chosen gives a taste of the awe and fascination that inspired me with the setting for my own small homage to the rolling deep. The Woman in Cabin 10 is about a woman who witnesses a mid-ocean murder on board a cruise ship, only to find that no one believes her.
Whichever of these you pick up, you’ll find writing soaked in brine, with an ear cocked to the tides and waves. Just one piece of advice: don’t read them on a boat.
Ruth Ware is the author of In a Dark, Dark Wood. Her new novel, The Woman in Cabin 10 has hit the bestseller lists in the US.