When I read an endorsement on the front cover from Hilary Mantel I experienced a little frisson of electric anticipation. Whilst some cover plaudits can almost put me off a book this had the opposite effect. But I needn’t have worried. No number of endorsements could have disturbed my pleasure at this dark, rich, gothic tale.
Described as historical fiction it is so much more. It is a novel of deep perception about what we might casually call the human condition. An insight and acknowledgement of the paradox that is the human spirit. All beautifully explored within the sustained metaphor of the sea that is ‘dark water’. And it is dark and murky water indeed.
The sea sequences in the book are palpably described and the action aboard the USS Orbis, particularly, is so well written you can almost smell the ship and the ocean, hear the creaking of the masts and the ropes, wince at the odour of unwashed sailors. It’s a marvellously protracted piece of descriptive writing that arouses in the reader a plethora of emotion from almost sea sickness to a kind of claustrophobia leading to horror at some of the events described.
The land part of the novel is set in that glorious region of the USA, New England, in Charlestown, Boston and the mysterious island of Nantucket. I was on Martha's Vineyard once, South Beach, and my hosts pointed out Nantucket to me in the distance. The ghost of Captain Ahab weaved into my mind and has always left me with a curious sensation that the island was a mystical place. This book has done nothing to dispel that feeling! Beautifully described the place presents as a complete contrast to the descriptions of Boston.
The novel’s narrator, Hiram Carver, is a mass of contradictions. You want to hug him and slap him, scream at him and shake him, soothe him and berate him. But most of all you want to understand him for if you can do that you might begin to understand yourself maybe. He is a doctor and it is this profession that sees him aboard the Orbis where he meets William Borden. Borden is another mass of contradictions. Lauded for his apparent bravery abroad his previous ship the Providence he seems to mesmerise Carver. As the synchronicity of life intervenes Carver finds Borden a patient of his in his new found specialisation as psychiatrist in an asylum in Charlestown. Borden is apparently mad.
This was one of the book’s many strengths for me; the examination of sanity and insanity and the almost invisible line that separates the two. The consideration of how either of those states affects our everyday lives and ultimately our mental and emotional freedom. There is a marvellous passage which I wish to quote in full -
‘Ma’am, I sense terror in the everyday. And I don’t believe we’ve solved the problem of how to live.We’ve made that terror safe, merely by going along with the old ways and the old forms. We should be free to question, we should be free to reinvent, we should be free to feel that terror, the terrible freedom of being uncertain - but we aren’t; we cling to our false certainty and call it freedom and we can’t see what we’ve really created out of freedom is a prison.’
Such powerful words that could be applied to our contemporary world. And whilst we read that and then we read of the philosophy of care applied at the asylum you end up wondering whether it is those named as ‘insane’ who are the only ones to truly understand life and living. And thus -
‘We are all at sea, sailing over dark waters.’
Carver seems obsessed by Borden and there is a subtle sub text here that in part explains his desire to understand him. The revelations of Borden are both shocking yet the astute reader may possibly have gleaned the truth in part. And there is another maxim in the book that I feel worth quoting -
‘If we don’t believe in the suffering of others, how can we believe in our own?’
And it seems the more that Hiram sees the suffering of others the more he suffers himself even if it doesn’t prompt him to act any differently.
The book is populated with diverse characters, skilfully drawn to play their part in the overall narrative but also to come alive for the reader. Characters that tug at our compassion, Hiram’s sister. Caro, for example. Characters that repulse us, like Captain Fitzgibbon, or Borden’s description of him!! Richard Mansfield, dependent yet decisive. So many paradoxes, so much duality.
I could go on! But I won’t. You will have got the general idea that this book is quite something! This isn’t just a book, this is literature.
My thanks to Bookbridgr and Ana McLaughlin at Quercus and riverrun for the opportunity to read this remarkable story.
May 2019 sees the publication of the paperback edition with this stunning cover.