I knew this was a book for which I would struggle to wait for the paperback edition to emerge; ever since its cryptic title started doing the rounds on Twitter I found myself sizing up the relative expenses I had to cover that week and arguing with myself over whether I really wanted a hardback in my rucksack along with my notepads (A4 and A5), paperbacks (The Sellout and hitherto unreviewed title) and a bottle of water. Surely, expenses and spinal column considered, I could wait slightly longer for a lighter version to pop into my bag.
Alas, patience and economy never being my strong point, I soon had a copy of RISINGTIDEFALLINGSTAR on the counter, and yes I did want a free bookmark and yes I did want a paper bag because I had just spent all my lunch money on a book.
We have all been there though; sometimes, you know a book will be worth it before you even pick it up. This is not just about positive reviews or prizes – the desire to grab the book immediately, illustrates a reader’s unbridled confidence in the writer. It is a knowingness that your expectations will be fulfilled. I had heard some indistinct comments of what this book entailed, something about the sea, about artists, about swimming, not exactly enough to set the world on fire, but knowing some of Philip Hoare’s previous works I knew that a reflection on art and the sea would be fabulously told by that author, and therefore, had to be read as soon as possible.
The result was some of the most enjoyable tube journeys ever. This book is almost impossible to review without wince-inducing gushing, and as if to illustrate the point, here goes:
It is a beautiful, affecting, reflective and powerful book. It ruminates on time, on loss, on desire, on nature, on sexuality, on art and on the author himself. It is a book which washes over you as you dive into it, and has you missing your tube stop every time as you get too enticed by its visions.
Onto what the book actually is about is harder to explain. I would put it like this: the book is the result of the question, ‘what does the sea mean to you?’ Philip Hoare as a writer has moved through the genre of biography, to explorations of specific places, to his exploration of the whale and the sea around the world. He has abstracted and loosened his topics for consideration and has employed more personal ruminations in his later works. So, when approaching, RISINGTIDEFALLINGSTAR, I knew with the increasing freedom in Hoare’s writing I would find something less distinct than before. His last two books have approached the subject of the Whale and the human relationship with the sea. But here, we have a man completely let loose, with the freedom to pour onto his pages his true love for the sea and all that that entails.
We are walking and swimming along we Hoare as he drifts off into different subjects. We begin with the watery wonder of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, realising the strange romance and influence this play has on the cultural psyche. The imagery of The Tempest flows through the book, through different artists and different landscapes. Hoare tells us of Cape Cod, of the sea at Southampton, of the North Sea, of the Welsh coast, of Torquay, the Thames estuary and many more besides. We can feel the sensation of the sea as Hoare describes his many swims, some cool and calm, some wild and violent, some queasy as the tentacles of jellyfish trail along his legs and some sublime, as his lies face down in the deep blue Mexican ocean listening to the orchestral songs of humpback whales.
Along the way Hoare tells us more of those others that were enticed by the sea, those that were enraptured by it, terrified by it, or even destroyed by it. For the Sea is not just a puddle to splash in, it is a soup of myth and legend, of stories, of lives, of bodies buried deep beneath the waves. Reading this these characters flow in and out of view, the realness of their lives is juxtaposed with the romanticism of the sea. The lyrics of Shelley’s poetry seems to drift around the landscapes that Hoare describes, but Hoare also describes his end brought about by the water that he had never learnt to conquer. The image of Shelley’s body being burnt on the beach is vividly relaid. We learn of Elizabeth Browning and her reliance on the sea for her health despite fearing it and eventually despising it as it robbed her of her friend and her brother. We hear the voices of those going down with the Titanic, we watch Oscar Wilde putting aside a swimsuit for Bosie, and we sigh with Wilfred Owen when in his brief reprieve from the war he finds a place to swim again. There is Meville scribbling out his final book as quickly as he can before the lights go out and there is Admiral Nelson’s bloody coat prompting tears to fall from Virginia Woolf’s eyes at Greenwich.
It is all enrapturing and beautifully loosely threaded together so that one can only describe the prose as watery. The text is spotted with pictures, unlabelled that remind me of Sebald and his books which were similarly pictured. Sebald seems like a good bet for an influence here, evident is the same spiraling off from era to era and subject to subject, and the same melancholic reflections on the presence of the past in ordinary places.
Hoare’s book has a melancholic edge to it. The historical characters often suffer via the sea or in front of it, but that is what gives the book its power. Amid the dead animals on the beach (which Hoare seems to have a surprising propensity to take the heads from), under the falling stars and the crashing waves so many stories happen, and Hoare is keen to reflect on these as he takes lonely swims in the freezing waves. He remembers Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth and his influence on his early life and mourns the recent death of the star by writing his name in the sand of the beach, to be washed away like everything else. The water has not just beauty but depth, a depth for emotion that flows out as Hoare considers the many who have been as enraptured by the sea as him.
This book is so much more than this and I haven’t the ability to describe it with any clarity, I’d just say read it, and after, if you can, go swimming in the sea.
Philip Hoare is the author of six works of non-fiction: Serious Pleasures: The Life of Stephen Tennant (1990) and Noel Coward: A Biography (1995), Wilde’s Last Stand: Decadence, Conspiracy, and the First World War (1997), Spike Island: The Memory of a Military Hospital (2000), and England’s Lost Eden: Adventures in a Victorian Utopia (2005). Leviathan or, The Whale (2008), won the 2009 BBC Samuel Johnson Prize for non-fiction. Most recently, The Sea Inside (2013) was published to great critical acclaim.
An experienced broadcaster, Hoare wrote and presented the BBC Arena film The Hunt for Moby-Dick, and directed three films for BBC’s Whale Night. He is Visiting Fellow at Southampton University, and Leverhulme Artist-in-residence at The Marine Institute, Plymouth University, which awarded him an honourary doctorate in 2011.
RISINGTIDEFALLINGSTAR was published by published by Harper Collins on 13th July 2017.
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Review by Jessica Gregory
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Read more of Jessica Gregory‘s reviews below:
ART: Tate Modern – Giacometti
What Alice Knew
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Read Jessica Gregory‘s fiction below:
A Quiet One
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