Book review: The Sea Inside by Philip Hoare

Hidden depths: Hoare finds kindred spirits in the creatures of the ocean. Picture: AP
Hidden depths: Hoare finds kindred spirits in the creatures of the ocean. Picture: AP
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WHEN the poet Emily Dickinson wrote “I think that the root of the Wind is Water” she was tapping into the primordial connections ­between our lives and the sea that once nurtured us.

The Sea Inside - Philip Hoare

Fourth Estate £18.99

Philip Hoare’s new book explores the “maritime conviction” which lies at the root of our human existence and takes a meandering journey along shorelines and through shallows, while diving into deeper ­waters to haul up hidden treasures.

Even when you cannot see the sea, (which is hard going when nowhere in the UK is reputedly more than 70 miles from the shore and Scotland’s major cities sit on the coast) you can feel it in the wind, taste it on your lips or see it sitting on the horizon. And the sea, with its dangerously changeable moods, its thundering grey power and its foamy lace skirts is the backdrop and frame to much of our island life, a reminder of the fathomless ooze we once came from and the unknowable natural id which borders our rocky ego state.

Hoare, whose book Leviathan won the Samuel Johnson prize for non-fiction and whose earlier books explored the borderlands of sexual and social history, here travels along the literal shoreline, ­discussing the points at which human life intersect with the unknowable sea. This is a narrative populated by sailors, whales, visionaries, monks and scientists, all of whom have felt their attention drawn by the ocean, and have allowed their minds to swim in its murky depths.

Like a medieval bestiary, this book glories in descriptions of sea creatures, with their rough skin, cavernous lungs, and quick dolphin brains. Like a diver searching for sunken treasure, Hoare has hauled up glittering facts from deep, dark places. Hoare tells us that swallows got their name from Scandinavia, from early Christians who believed that the bird had swooped low over the Crucifixion crying Svala! Svala! – Console! Console! “and called it svalow in tribute to its piety”. Maoris saw a connection between the hide of sperm whales and the rough bark of the kauri tree. There are reflections on Herman Melville, the guillemot, on whale bones, monks, arctic explorations. Sometimes there are so many odd and ­illuminating facts floating in Hoare’s narrative that his prose is a little like a wave sweeping up wood, shells, stones, polystyrene and single Wellington boots before depositing them all at your feet.

The hidden narrative under Hoare’s travels is the death of his mother, which sets the compass of his journey at the beginning of the book, and gives him his task at the end as he sets to clearing her room which has lain untouched for six years since her death.

In between times he travels to Australasia, Sri Lanka, the Azores and the US, exploring historical journeys and the parallels they have with ­today’s scientific explorations of the sea. He has a keen eye for telling eccentricities both in the living and the dead and his portrait of sea-travelling monks, explorers, scientists and deported convicts is vivid. This is a narrative that will leave the reader with a real tang of salt.

At moments, for this reviewer, reflection and discussion dipped into a Sargasso-like ­circularity. For all the fact that his journey takes him around the world, some chapters lack a real sense of forward motion. Like a sailor anxiously checking the weather, I could have done with a stiff breeze to fill the sails of this narrative to speed it on towards the horizon. But lovers of the sea, the shore and the myriad creatures that live in it or near it will find enough to distract them until the next tide comes in. «