Ernest Hemingway has been dead for more than half a century now, but he still casts such a long shadow that if you describe another author’s style as “economical” many readers will automatically assume that you mean it is in some way Hemingway-esque. Cynan Jones’s writing in Cove is a brilliant study in economy, yet it could hardly be more different from, for example, Hemingway’s writing in The Old Man And The Sea – a book to which, in terms of subject matter at least, is bears a strong resemblance.
Like Santiago, the unnamed hero of Cove finds himself alone at sea in a small boat, locked in an unequal battle with the natural world. Like Santiago, he is a fisherman (although a recreational fisherman in a sea kayak somewhere off the coast of Britain looking to catch a mackerel for his tea, rather than an impoverished professional trying to hook a blue marlin off the coast of Cuba). In both books, much of the action takes place inside the protagonists’ heads, as they try to think their way out of a series of problems while staving off pain, fear and despair.
But whereas Hemingway’s prose in The Old Man And The Sea is so simple and pared-to-the-bone that it feels monumental, Jones’s writing, although also stripped back, is delicate and poetic.
At a key moment in the story, just before Jones’s hero is struck by lightning, “A metallic sheen comes to the water, like cutlery. Like metal much touched. The white clouds glow, a sort of leaden at the edge.” When the kayaker comes to after the strike and tries to piece together what has happened to him, his consciousness is “a snapped cord that his mind is trying to pull back together”. Looking down at his injured left hand, he notes that it is “fractalled with a strange blue pattern, seems tattooed, a pattern the way ice forms on aeroplane glass”.
If Hemingway’s prose resonates with universal truths, Jones’s shimmers with suggestiveness and ambiguity.
It’s not just the language that’s poetic in Cove either – the way Jones breaks up his text into isolated chunks that almost look like stanzas makes it feel like something halfway between a novel and a long-form poem, while at the same time reflecting its protagonist’s disconnected mental state. Like Max Porter’s heartbreaking and uncategorisable Grief Is The Thing With Feathers, published last year, it’s almost as if Jones couldn’t find an existing form that allowed him to write the book he had in his head so he decided to invent one. I look forward to his next experiment.
*Cove by Cynan Jones is published by Granta, £9.99