In a blank between two paragraphs of this arresting short novel, a lone man in a kayak is struck by lightning. He wakes in unknown waters, having drifted far from the cove of the title. Badly injured, equipped with little more than a litre of water, a fishing line and a frying pan, he faces an endurance test of the most essential, stripped-back sort. Here is a man and the sea – or rather a man and his own fear, thirst, self-control and motivating love for a pregnant partner back on land.
Cynan Jones is a highly accomplished writer in whose hands such elemental raw materials turn strange and fugitive. Lightning strikes and kayaks might belong in an all-action adventure, but Jones’s interest is in stillness and repetition. Though his novels often turn on sudden shocks, the real power of his prose lies in its slow accumulation of energy around dimly apprehended points of tension.
Jones won much admiration for his last book, The Dig, which ventured into the grim nocturnal world of badger-baiters. The form, if not the plot, locked the ringleader of the baiters, a man of desperate, purposeless cruelty, into conflict with a bereaved farmer struggling through lambing season. Brutality and love were set against each other like a badger’s stripes, yet the novel was by no means black-and-white.
The Dig is to my mind a richer book than Cove, because it contains multitudes and sets unexpected forces in messy opposition. But Cove, Jones’s fifth novel, is both taut and impressively polymorphous. What, for instance, is the scale of it? The undifferentiated expanses of sea induce claustrophobia, while the few square feet available for manoeuvre inside the kayak must be pushed to contain all life and thought. As each small movement is described, we watch as if hypnotised – and it feels as though we are watching over the man’s shoulder, so close we can hear him breathing: “He clipped the line that was attached to the hook to the feather trace and moved the weight so it was linked from the baited hook. Then he threw out the rig and let out the line.” No metaphors here, because we need to concentrate on fishing, but once the fish is in hand and about to be eaten raw, there’s time to consider: “It moved like the thick skin on a blister.”
Sharp perceptions like this, or the sound of Velcro ripping, or the “strange gurgle” of a razorbill, rise out from passages that seem submerged. Forms of hyperalertness are mixed with numbness and muffling. The kayaker has lost feeling in one arm, and his memory is damaged, too, so that familiar things lie just beyond reach. “The smell of the jumper triggers something, but it is like a piano key hitting strings that are gone.”
The mobile surface of the sea is alive like a living skin, “seeming to goosebump for a moment, as if cold air goes across it”. Hour after hour, there is the flick and patter of wavelets slapping at the sides of the boat. Hidden lives emerge from below: the fin of a sunfish “folding, flopping”, or a memory relayed by a grandparent of a U-boat coming up through the water of the bay. Where are we? The dolphins, sunfish and sudden heat suggest an ocean far from Jones’s native Ceredigion in Wales, but sunfish have been sighted in Cardigan Bay.
Without a clock, without knowing how many hours have passed since the storm, the man floats on uncertain currents of time as well as water: “time seems too specific a word to him. He thinks of whiles, moments – things less measurable.” Within its 98 pages, the narrative expands and contracts. It shifts, too, back and forth from an abstract fable of Everyman to the very particular story of this one man, and from the nowhere seas of myth to intensely observed waters off the coast of Wales.
The bare contours of Cove are close to those of the Anglo-Saxon poem “The Wanderer”, written more than a millennium ago, and recast for every generation since by authors writing about storms, castaways, single-handed feats of physical work and inward patience. If the kayaker is read as a representative survivor, Cove also joins the desolate company of post-apocalyptic fictions. Part of what’s impressive about the book is that it holds its own. One might expect some level of allusiveness, an acknowledgement of literature’s other lost sailors. But Jones’s writing has a cool independence, aloof from others’ words.
Seamen of the past have often, in extremity, conversed with God. Hemingway, in The Old Man and the Sea, replaced divine providence with the workings of luck, and the image of Christ with that of old blue-eyed Santiago, laying his back against the fishing line as against a cross. In Jones’s prose there is no shadow of a god or cadence of a bible verse, and out at sea one notices that absence.
The technical complexity of the writing is sometimes too visible; there are shifts of tense, for example, that might baffle Henry Green. But mostly the risks pay off. An elliptical frame narrative throws us out towards another, untold, story. The shape of the book depends on unforced parallels between one untranslatable sign and another: a bird and a man blown off course, a missing child, a floating doll. The distant cry of a dolphin calf might be a child’s cry, near and urgent, or the involuntarily imagined ghost-cry of the man’s unborn baby.
Lonely minds think aloud to steady themselves, and can often think through actions in second-person narration. If the modulation between “I” and “you” looks tricksy on the page at first, it soon feels true to the experience of tiredness, disorientation and love. It is a distinction of this brief, charged novel that if you ask at any moment “who is speaking” it is best not to expect a final answer.
• Alexandra Harris’s Weatherland: Writers and Artists under English Skies is published by Thames & Hudson. Cove is published by Granta. To order a copy for £8.19 (RRP £9.99) go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.
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