Lucy Popescu

freedom to write, review, travel…

Book Review – Cove

Posted by lucypopescu on December 4, 2016

coveStories of individuals pitted against the cruel forces of nature have a broad and enduring appeal, from Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. When executed well, survival narratives take hold of your imagination and remain with you. It is this rich seam that Welsh novelist Cynan Jones mines in his novella Cove.

In a short prologue — a dreamlike sequence narrated in the second person — a woman waits on a shore. Then the focus shifts to a man, adrift at sea, having been struck by lightning. As well as being paralysed in one arm, he has lost his mental moorings and is unsure of who he is or why he is marooned in a fragile kayak covered in a thin veil of ash.

As Jones tracks back and forth in time in his characteristically spare prose, we learn that the man had come to sea to scatter his father’s ashes and to catch some fish for lunch. Jones’ economy of language means that his imagery, his choice of metaphors and similes, has to hit the nail every time. It is some measure of his skill as a writer that they invariably do. Consider the following descriptions of the man’s shattered memory: at first, he has only “a sense of himself, a fly trapped the wrong side of glass”. When he catches sight of his name on an address label “it was like looking into an empty cup”. He remembers the beginning of his journey and drifting out to sea, but “the time in between was gone. Like a cigarette burn in a map.”

Jones’ terse lyricism, together with his repetition of resonant images and motifs, encourage the reader to fill in the gaps as slivers of the man’s memory return: he finds a wren’s feather inside his dead mobile phone and “the sense of her came back”. He imagines her, “the bell of her stomach”, waiting for him on the beach. He knows they each have a feather. This slow, partial remembering serves as a reawakening — it succours the man and gives him the will to live: “The idea of her, whoever she might be, seemed to grow into a point on the horizon he could aim for. He believed he would know more as he neared her.”

The odds are nevertheless stacked against Jones’ protagonist: he is suffering from overexposure, he has lost his paddles, he is injured and in pain, one arm is useless and he’s low on water. As he drifts, hopelessly, at the mercy of the sea and the weather, he becomes acutely aware of nature’s gentler side — the butterfly that alights on the boat, the sunfish staring him in the eye, the dolphins playing around his kayak. These precious reminders of the here and now strengthen his resolve to survive.

Jones strips the story down to its elemental core and much of it reads like a prose poem. His vivid descriptions allow us to feel the man’s physical discomfort and flagging spirit. Cove is a slighter work than Jones’ previous novel, The Dig, but explores similar themes. Just as The Dig was about the rhythms of rural life, Cove is about the dangerous, unknowable rhythms of the sea. Both are about devastation — one emotional, the other physical — and both examine love, loss, memory and the will to live. Cove is a haunting meditation on trauma and human fragility.

 

Originally published by FT.com

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