Review of The Boat, by Clara Salaman

The Blue, by Lucy Clarke, was one of the best stories that I read in 2015, & but three weeks into 2016 it is already clear that Clara Salaman’s The Boat will be in my top echelon this year. An extremely attractive couple of teenage newly-weds are enjoying a travelling honeymooners hitchhiking round the Med. Johnny a keen dingy sailor with some deepwater experience delivering yachts, & the 17 y/o Clemency (called ‘Clem’) are madly in love & surviving on pick up jobs, the latest of which in Turkey involved deep-sixing a lot of expensive & probably hot items that result in their being on the run from a bunch of plug uglies. Fortunately Johnny & Clem find their way onto a 30’ sailing yacht with the unlikely name Little Utopia, the floating home of an English family, Frank & Annie & their 5 y/o dtr Imogene (called ‘Smudge’).

As they cruise along the Turkish coast, life aboard the yacht appears idyllic. Frank & Annie are generous with food & (quite plentiful) drink, Smudge is an inquisitive & attractive child, & Johnny & Clem make themselves quite useful supplying nautical expertise Frank surprisingly lacks – he doesn’t even know how to sail! But it is not long before we start hearing ominous chords in the background. (Appropriately, when we first hear the voice of Annie, she’s singing ‘Bad Moon Rising’!) Tho’ the setting is contemporary, Frank sounds like he’s straight out of the Esalen Inst. or Tavistock Sq. ca. 1970 & it’s clear that Frank & Annie have what was then termed an ‘open marriage’. Slowly, tho’, as his jealousy mounts, Johnny discovers that worse, much worse,than adultery may be occurring aboard Little Utopia, but who is he to believe?

I most loved The Blue for the on-board relationships & moral issues & in the case of The Boat these are torqued even tighter. What was very close up in The Blue feels claustrophobic here & when Johnny senses an overwhelming impulse to get himself & Clem off that boat, the reader empathizes completely. Sometimes I simply had to turn off the audio – listening was too intense, esp. whilst trying to drive a car. As in The Blue, the question isn’t whether to notify ‘the Authorities’ as landsmen in civilised societies are supposed to do when something bad or criminal comes to notice. At sea it’s ‘What Authorities?’ as the author has Clem ask. Not much in way of police – not to mention child protective services – out in the Med off the Anatolian coast.

Readers will surely differ in their judgements on how Johnny finally deals with both what has been ongoing aboard Little Utopia & in his relationship with Clem. If you read my review of The Blue, you’ll not be surprised that I thought Johnny’s handling of matters involving Frank was absolutely dead-on right. Sometimes there is only one thing for a real sailor to do: Cast the legalisms over the side & then take care of business, whatever that may entail. (In another era I can imagine Johnny captaining an armed merchant brig off the Javanese coast like Tom Lingard in Conrad’s The Rescue.)

As for Johnny & Clem’s relationship, so often I wanted to shout ‘Please don’t do it. Don’t do that!’) @ both of them @ different times. but when each of them does something foolish or thoughtless, it is absolutely in character: Johnny, as fits a good sailor, too exacting, & Clem, as a very free spirit, too impulsive & giving.

Artistically there are some flaws; Lucy Clarke is a better sailor (at least within the covers of a book) than Clara Salaman. I cannot believe that Frank had only motored, never sailed, before. (I quite agree with Johnny about motors – once you turn on the engine the most graceful sailing yacht morphs hideously into the Hong Kong-Macao ferry – as I learnt spending a week crewing my brother’s father-in-law’s no-so-graceful motor sailer once upon a time, when I also broke another of my rules Johnny & Clem learnt the hard way, never crew for a skipper who knows less about sailing than you do!) Sometimes I wondered about the author’s nautical vocabulary. One ‘hoists’ or ‘raises’ sails – one doesn’t ‘put them up’ like overnight guests. Also yacht sails haven’t been made of canvas since synthetic fabrics were introduced in the 1950s.

Leon Williams narrated in what sounded to me like perfect Estuary dialect, which is precisely what these English characters ought to speak, & I loved listening for what linguists call non-rhoticity, intrusive-R, & L-vocalisation (to my North American ear, ‘saw’ sounded like ‘soar’ & ‘Fireball’ like ‘fibreboard’) But for some strange reason, Williams pronounced every nautical term with an over-exaggerated (I always thought that expression an illiterate pleonasm till now) emphasis on every syllable that you’d never hear from the mouth of any real sailor on either side the Atlantic, who’d pronounce ‘bowline’ to rhyme with ‘strollin’ & not ‘now fine’! Scarlett Mack was a much better narrator of The Blue & this book deserved her too.

All in all, whatever you make of the ending, The Boat is a superb sea adventure story & a very moving tragedy,

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