BOOK REVIEW: Shark Drunk: The Art of Catching a Large Shark from a Tiny Rubber Dinghy in a Big Ocean by Morten Strøksnes

 

Well, that’s a title and a half, and I do wonder, just a little bit, just how many people it would appeal to. Myself, you had me at shark, or drunk, for that matter – I mean, sometimes, when I’m fed up of the world of people, I look up footage of big, bad sharks on YouTube just to distract myself from the constant drivel escaping from the mouths of the leaders of the free world and the ever-escalating Twitter wars between the various encampments of the new world order. The title of this book alone gives one the image of escape and adventure, of isolation and challenge, of setting out into the deep, cold ocean with nothing, but a rubber boat and a fishing rod, but wait – if you’re anything as nostalgic as me for a simple, nature filled existence – it gets better. Not only does this book explore that postulated in its title, it is also set in the remote north of Norway and involves staking out the infamous Greenland Shark – the oldest living vertebrae in the world.

Has that got you get? If not, well it’s probably not for you, but hell, the rest of us will skip on merrily with a copy of Shark Drunk in our rucksacks.

Morten Strøksnes has written a wonderful reflection on his adventures with his friend Hugo. The two picked the somewhat random and near impossible task of chasing the Greenland shark – an animal that lives in the depths of the ocean far from most fishing hooks. This task had been decided on for various reasons: one, the two adventurers are drawn into the idea because of the cultural history of the activity, Greenland Shark hunting was pursued around the waters off Skrova in times gone by, when times were tough and the practically toxic animal might have actually been worth eating; two, for their personal interest in this phenomenal creature with its strange biological traits and extinction avoiding DNA; and three, for the sheer hell of it.

The book follows the activities of the author and Hugo over four seasons of a year as they try to bring up the Greenland Shark from the depths. First thing to say is, actually, that the book isn’t all about a shark hunt, it encompasses it, but it also encompasses a meandering through various reminiscences, events and subject-matter. This book holds true to the real essence of fishing (as I understand it): that of waiting around for long periods of time. In this time, as the author is sitting out on the sea, or travelling to and from the mainland, or simply inside waiting for the weather to lift, he is exploring all manner of things Nordic and all manner of things shark-based.

Not unlike Philip Hoare’s digressions around the subjects of the sea, Strøksnes also dwells on the local seascape –  the tides, the history of the local fishing port, the ghost stories of the sea, the animals of the sea, the topology of the area, the depths of the ocean, the evolutionary paths of the shark and of the human-being, and many more besides. It is difficult, having recently read and reviewed Hoare’s RISINGTIDEFALLINGSTAR, not be feel they are similar pieces, but this book does have a distinctly Nordic feel to it and perhaps a slightly more grounded approach in comparison to Hoare’s free-flowing and almost spiritual reflections on the sea.

Strøksnes’ book is very much dipped in the ocean of the North Norwegian sea, it is soggy with Nordic sea salt. It is a slow-paced form of non-fiction that he written like the author has momentarily zoned out meanders from subject to subject before it refocuses on the task in hand. One of Shark Drunk’s main pleasures is this wonderful sense of place, with its tempestuous weather, its long summer days and endless winter nights. I think the book gives a thorough reflection of the essence of the area. It drifts between nostalgia and realism in giving the reader an impression of a place that is remote by today’s standards, that is far from the buzzing city, from the crowds and coffee shops. In and about the Island there are glimpses into the a mystically-hued past: there are ancient standing stones weathering away; there’s Arvid Olsen, the oldest fisherman on the island who fished blue-fin tuna before developing an allergy to sunlight; there’s the lighthouse that hides the story of a WW2 suicide; and there is the yearly skrei (cod) festival, where a orgy of fishing, eating and drinking commences, and not in the order you expect; there is even a Viking ship that pulls up on the shore under the moonlight.

But also, the book takes in its stride the realism of living any life like this. The two are seeking to capture, kill and use a Greenland shark, something that perhaps readers may feel unnecessary. Hugo wants to utilise its liver oil for his paints. The exercise is not one that aims to put a tag on a dorsal fin and set it free, but one that will have the shark cut up like many others were in the past. There is no hiding the reality of existence in this strange, cold outcrop from the reader, death is part and parcel of fishing, of living on what essentially is an old fishing-base. Here whales are still hunted and harpooned and the tales of the blood and the stench is something that the reader can nearly sense. Indeed, this sense of the smell of nature recurs several times, in the smell of the rotting bait, or the drying cod or sea salt on the wind. As well as this, there is the constant shadow of the modern world: industries dying out, work drying up, populations declining. Our author still has his deadlines to make and realises that this mission is always just a temporary escape from real life, and not on the Fjords boat by boat of beauty-seeking tourists is sailing by and getting busier every year.

Truth is there may be many who won’t really want to engage in the bleak side of this watery diary – who may see the mission of hunting one of the oldest animals on the planet an uncomfortable notion for them – but being constantly enamoured by tales of the sea, I found the whole thing quite irresistible and as the book winds-up at the end I found description of the final trip out on the boat uplifting and joyful, and the tug on the line filled me with suspense and wonder at what these two odd men might drag up from the deep.

Morten Strøksnes

Morten Stoksnes photo

Morten Strøksnes is an award-winning Norwegian writer. After studying in Oslo and Cambridge, Strøksnes embarked on a career as a journalist. He has published eight critically acclaimed books of reportage, essays and literary non-fiction. Shark Drunk was awarded five prizes in Norway when it was first published, including the prestigious Brage Prize for non-fiction.

Shark Drunk: The Art of Catching a Large Shark from a Tiny Rubber Dinghy in a Big Ocean was published by published by Jonathan Cape 13th July 2017.

You can purchase a copy of Shark Drunk: The Art of Catching a Large Shark from a Tiny Rubber Dinghy in a Big Ocean from Foyles:

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To discover more about Jonathan Cape click here

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Review by Jessica Gregory

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