The Waves Burn Bright is a portrait of the aftermath of the 1988 Piper Alpha disaster as experienced by one family, the Frasers.
The Waves Burn Bright by Iain Maloney | Freight, 272pp, £9.99
Carrie Fraser is 16 when the fire occurs. Her father, Marcus, is one of the survivors but a geologist, not a crew member, who is only visiting the platform for a few days when it is stricken. Her parents’ marriage was already in trouble and her father’s inability to process the trauma in the weeks and months following Piper Alpha causes her mother to walk out.
Carrie, a studious teenager with ambitions to study away from Aberdeen, becomes the chief carer to her erratic, alcoholic dad. The narrative moves back and forth in time over a period of 25 years, and also crisscrosses the globe from Japan, to New Zealand, Hawaii and back to Aberdeen.
The characters are well drawn and believable; the tortured survivor, struggling with dreams and the need to blot out memories with the bottle; the child damaged as much by the implosion of her parents’ marriage as the disaster; and the guilt-ridden mother who has positioned herself outside the close unit of father and daughter but who still wants to revel in Carrie’s achievements.
The night of the disaster is sensitively and evocatively handled: some men on the platform follow safety drills to doomed muster stations, while others jump to their deaths in the face of the intense heat.
Carrie as a 16-year-old undergoes the agony of waiting with the other relatives at the hospital in Aberdeen as the few survivors are brought back by helicopter. That her father is one of them is at first a relief; later, after decades of problems, she admits that had he died, her life might have been easier.
But the story reaches far beyond Piper Alpha. With both father and daughter pursuing careers as geologists – him as an oil and gas specialist, her as a volcanologist – it becomes a story of what happens when the metaphorical rock you have built your life on becomes liquid.
In a type of no man’s land after the disaster, as a survivor Marcus can’t or won’t access the support available for the bereaved. As a member of the management team of the oil company, rather than a crew member, he feels he has no affinity for fellow sufferers.
This is also a coming of age tale, with Carrie forced into adulthood before she is ready while her father seems infantilised by his trauma. It is a role that she fights to get away from. She has a relationship with a school friend who gives up a place at university to study law to pursue snowboarding as a career. Lovelorn, he travels across the world to find her but although he is successful in his sport, his pot smoking and gaming holds little attraction for the more mature Carrie.
The one jarring character is a fun loving young female scientist, with dip dyed hair, who is revealed as stridently homophobic. The intention is perhaps to suggest that non-heterosexuals still face prejudice from unlikely directions, but I doubt readers need that to be spelled out.
There is a great deal of geology underpinning the story, which is a lot more interesting than it might sound. As a research scientist, Carrie escapes the granite of Aberdeen to work around the ring of fire in the Pacific and is equally captivated by folk beliefs about volcano gods as by her work trying to predict eruptions. She describes her work as mapping the anatomy of the planet and compares the mystery of magma flows to earlier scientists working to decipher human circulation. Digging through a hard exterior to explore the layers beneath can be a dangerous and explosive exercise, whether that’s the earth’s crust or a human’s weaker shell. In this novel both are explored in equally compelling ways.