Book review: Beyond the Sea, by Paul Lynch

Paul Lynch PIC: Joel Saget/AFP/Getty Images
Paul Lynch PIC: Joel Saget/AFP/Getty Images
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At 10am on 18 November, 2012, a 37-year-old fisherman called José Salvador Alvarenga left the port of Chocohuital in Mexico and headed out into the Pacific with one inexperienced crewman, Ezequiel Córdoba, 22. At around 1am that night, a forecast storm finally caught up with them and their 25-foot-long fibreglass boat began to fill with water. With Alvarenga steering and Córdoba bailing, they managed to stay afloat until morning, but then, within sight of the coast, their engine failed and they began to drift, completely at the mercy of ocean currents.

Their boat wouldn’t reach land again until 30 January, 2014, when it washed up on Ebon Atoll at the southern tip of the distant Marshall Islands. And by this time, only one of them would still be alive.

The story of Alvarenga and Córdoba’s ordeal was first told in book form by the investigative journalist Jonathan Franklin, whose 438 Days: An Extraordinary True Story Of Survival at Sea, published in 2015, was described as “the best survival book in a decade” by Outside Magazine. Now, in Beyond The Sea, Paul Lynch offers a fictionalised version of events – a richly imagined re-telling of the story that gives it the timeless aura and allegorical undertones of an ancient Greek myth.

Alvarenga and Córdoba aren’t acknowledged as the inspiration for Bolivar and Hector, the two fishermen in Lynch’s book, but some of the details are so similar – from Bolivar’s troubled past to the cramped cooler on the deck in which the two men shelter from the sun during the day and huddle together during the night – that its provenance is clear.

The alchemical process Lynch is attempting here involves taking the bare facts of the 438 Days story and making the experiences of the protagonists feel immediate, hyper-real.

Inevitably, perhaps, given the subject matter, there are echoes of Hemingway’s The Old Man And The Sea: physical suffering is offset by wry understatement; staccato sentences are frequently deployed; big ideas are expressed simply. Once or twice, when Bolivar speaks to Hector, he delivers lines that could easily have come from one of Santiago’s internal monologues: “Look. This is what it is. It is not something else. It is not what you want it to be.”

At times Lynch can be even more economical with language than Hemingway; often he simply states the bald facts of the situation and leaves the reader to infer what the characters’ thoughts might be. One paragraph simply reads: “Evening light, a jet plane prising open the distant sky.” Another: “A distant light on a dark sea. Passing by, unreachable, a ship.”

If that makes Beyond The Sea sound overly cold or detached, rest assured that there are moments of raw passion aplenty. This is a book that will leave you feeling thoroughly wrung out by the final page, but also happy to be alive. Roger Cox

Beyond the Sea, by Paul Lynch, Oneworld, £12.99. Paul Lynch is appearing at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on 26 August