Five Sea-based Mysteries
There are plenty of things that can go wrong on or by the sea: shipwrecks, drownings, tsunamis, monsters coming up from the watery depths to get you: the possibilities for fiction writers are endless. Swimming Lessons, my second novel, is set on the coast in Dorset, a county in southern England. It’s fairly tame as far as sea-based disasters; there aren’t any shipwrecks or sea monsters, but there is plenty of wild swimming, a trip in a rowboat, a riptide, a nudist beach, and a mystery. I love books that feature the sea or the coast, especially if they contain something surprising or unexplained, and here are a few I’d recommend:
- The Life of Pi by Yann Martel
Piscine Molitor, or Pi, is a boy traveling with his family from India to Canada on board a ship that is also carrying the animals from his father’s zoo. The ship goes down and Pi finds himself on a lifeboat with a hyena, a zebra, an orangutan, and a 450-pound Bengal tiger called Richard Parker. It’s an adventure story with a mysterious island and strange creatures as well as a story of survival, but it also asks interesting theological and philosophical questions of the reader, so that at the end of the book, you find yourself not only questioning what actually happened on that lifeboat but also what you believe in.
- The Beach by Alex Garland
Richard, an English backpacker in Thailand, is given a map with directions to a beautiful island with a lagoon and a perfect beach. He makes it there with several others and lives with an isolated community whose members appear to enjoy a utopian life. The book makes for compulsive reading as hints of darker elements start to intrude: petty squabbles among the group, illness, and unfriendly locals. Richard is a well-observed character, cynical, and with his references to films, somehow very real. It’s only in the last twenty-five pages or so that Garland ramps up the action so that The Beach becomes impossible to put down.
- English Passengers by Matthew Kneale
In 1857, Captain Illiam Quillian Kewley is fined for transporting duty-free liquor from the Isle of Man, and to pay for the fine, he charters out his boat to the Reverend Geoffrey Wilson who is convinced the Garden of Eden is on Tasmania, a small island south of Australia. Accompanying the reverend is Timothy Renshaw, a botanist, and Dr. Thomas Potter. In addition to these characters who each take a turn at narration, we hear from maybe sixteen more, both on the boat and from some Tasmanian aborigines. The book is fast-paced and witty with lots of twists and turns. The multitude of voices, the journey by sea, and the subject of British colonialism make English Passengers a really interesting read.
- Sweetland by Michael Crummey
Moses Sweetland lives on an island off Newfoundland named for his ancestors. The Canadian government has offered to pay compensation to the families who live there if all the inhabitants agree to be moved to the mainland. Only Moses refuses, which causes upset with his neighbors. He eventually agrees to comply but a terrible accident makes him fake his own death and remain on the island. Believing himself to be alone, struggling against the elements and with food running short, Moses is haunted by his past, and possibly by someone who is on the island with him. The story gives up its secrets and surprises slowly, and the sea is an ever-present character, dangerous and mysterious.
- Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
This 1938 novel features one of my favorite first lines ever: Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again. The narrator is the second Mrs. de Winter and Manderley is a house in Cornwall, England, Maxim de Winter’s home to which takes his new bride. But there was a first Mrs. De Winter who drowned in the sea only a year or so previously, and a sinister housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, who does everything she can to make the new wife, and the reader, uncomfortable. Rebecca is a classic gothic novel set in a house and gardens beside a malevolent sea— perfect for curling up with on a February evening.