Tuesday 17 September 2019

Beyond the Sea by Paul Lynch: Stripping back the theatrics for a slow tale of survival

Oneworld Publications, hardback, 220 pages, €18.19

Famine novel: Lynch’s last book, 'Grace', won the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the year in 2018
Famine novel: Lynch’s last book, 'Grace', won the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the year in 2018
Beyond the Sea

Hilary A White

Donegal film critic-turned-novelist Paul Lynch struck gold when Grace won the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year in 2018, a turnabout for a deft lyrical craftsman who was garnering more attention and praise in France than in his native Ireland.

Grace was a musical and tangibly atmospheric collision of Cormac McCarthy and Cecil Woodham-Smith, but while often spectacular, its reconfiguring of the Famine as a gothic nightmare was occasionally overcooked and show-offy.

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If someone were to hand you a blind manuscript of Beyond the Sea, his much slimmer follow-up, you'd struggle to believe that it was the work of the same writer, and this is to be commended. Gone are the prose-poetry somersaults and heavy theatrics of Grace. Much like the characters at the heart of this sensuous ocean-survival fable, Lynch appears to have stripped himself right down to his bare knuckles in order to rebuild his voice.

Bolivar is a fisherman in a seaside village. He sets out on his panga with Hector, a younger man who he has been asked to show the ropes to. The callow youth and the grizzled master are archetypes of such stories: a relationship that is not parental but hugely instructional to both parties. Whatever tension exists within their generational gap is tightened further when a storm lays waste to them and their supplies far outside the fringes of Bolivar's fishing waters.

As hopes of rescue continue to disintegrate, the two characters' regard for one another undergoes alteration, from mistrust and resentment to reliance and concern. Tricks of the light are played upon the two weak men slumped in the boat at the mercy of the currents and winds. Time and memory begin to warp with glacial progress. The sea, so endless, so apathetic, and so neutral a canvas upon which to locate redemption, becomes the universe itself.

This is what you could call "slow fiction", where a deep dive is undertaken into the minute thoughts and inclinations of characters being taken through death and rebirth. We drift with Lynch far into the regrets and losses of these isolated souls, to the effect that hours and days and weeks has on both their physical health and emotional ballast.

Such an aching sense of spaciousness feels in the spirit of its exotic setting, of Latin American sensualists such as Paolo Coelho or Pablo Neruda, or the deep eastern wisdoms of Hermann Hesse. But this is cleaved open later in the novel as traces of Grace's gothic horror creep on board for a leg of the journey that, depending on your sensibilities, is either a bold change in texture or a slight misstep into the macabre.

This complete immersion in the existential movements of castaways is punctuated with hard and fast survival drills - thirst, hunger and shelter, in that order of importance.

"The salt air dissolved all things", even the places in the mind where cherished images are stored. Bolivar's spirit will not relent, though, and as grief "sits shapeless" between the pair, he musters the energy again and again to try and shake despondency out of Hector, reminding him that tears use up precious moisture. At night, the dreams continue of "dryness spreading about the body - the flesh withering, the slowly baking bones, the blood turning to powder".

Lynch's foray into Hemingway's waters does most of its work beneath surface level, and very fine work it is too, provided that you immerse yourself completely in this new pared-down style of his and leave yourself open to its resonances.

He is still fully capable of turning on the lyricism ("The maddened wind. Tunnelling out of the dark to reach another dark more true than dream") but he does so sparingly here on the open ocean, where the search for renewal appears to transcend the need for the writer to show all weaponry in their arsenal. It is for this reason that Beyond the Sea deserves a special place in Lynch's increasingly fascinating and diverse catalogue.

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