RISINGTIDEFALLINGSTAR by Philip Hoare – book review

by Mark Broatch / 28 November, 2017

A painting of HMS Victory, “spiky with cannon”. Photo/Getty Images

Philip Hoare’s ode to oceans reaches the high-water mark of his previous books.

What’s this book about? Hard to say, really. It’s essay meets nature writing meets memoir, but that’s just the half of it. Essentially, Philip Hoare trips around bits of coast, talking to people, musing and walking and swimming, endlessly swimming. In all weathers, in all waters.

Hoare has always felt the sea’s pull, seems to wish he’d been born with a caul, which, legend suggests, prevents drowning. Or as a selkie, zipping off his skin to mix with the locals, only to slip back into the welcoming dark sea when night falls.

He writes beautifully. “I’ve spent many summers here; winters, too. I’ve seen it out of season, when the people fall away with the leaves to reveal its bones: the shingled houses and white lanes lined with crushed clam shells as if they led out of or under the sea.” And: “Victory’s sides are spiky with cannon which once disgorged a dragon’s breath, each discharging a pulverising death. The entire ship is an organic war machine, almost animal itself, looped and bound with hemp and canvas and wood and iron, soaked with tar and blood and sweat and piss.”

It’s also endlessly fascinating. Every few pages he springs a surprising fact or observation. Occasional uncaptioned monochrome photos give it a documentary air.

Yet at times, the desire to share every enthusiasm can pall. I’ll save you from the exhaustive descriptions of birds and storms, let alone the all-caps, run-together chapter headings like the title. Then, generally to be encouraged, there are his eccentricities – not just the swimming, but the lying down next to a dead dolphin and investigating its sex, allowing himself to be repeatedly stung by jellyfish, a claimed fear of mountains.

But once he forgets himself and explores the lives of others, the book becomes unputdownable. Among them are the subjects of his previous books. So, alongside the endless sea (The Sea Inside) and whales (Leviathan) are Oscar Wilde (Wilde’s Last Stand) and Stephen Tennant, regarded as one of the brightest of the Bright Young Things (Serious Pleasures). And others, such as poets Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Wilfred Owen, both of whom he writes about quite brilliantly and with immense sympathy. Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, Shelley, Thoreau. Often their stories loop back to the others, in an unforced, organic way.

I’d be disappointed if it wasn’t nominated for at least one non-fiction award (Leviathan won Britain’s most important prize for non-fiction, the Samuel Johnson). If you are going to write a history-soaked, literary-pilgrimage nature book, this is the way to do it.

RISINGTIDEFALLINGSTAR, Philip Hoare (Fourth Estate/HarperCollins, $32.99)

This article was first published in the October 7, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.


The enduring sandwich: What's not to like about bread and fillings?
94342 2018-09-23 00:00:00Z Food

The enduring sandwich: What's not to like about br…

by Margo White

Despite an apparent backlash against bread – against carbohydrates and gluten – the sandwich endures.

Read more
Humanity is on 'the highway to digital dictatorship', says Yuval Noah Harari
96527 2018-09-22 00:00:00Z Social issues

Humanity is on 'the highway to digital dictatorshi…

by Andrew Anthony

The author of worldwide bestsellers Sapiens and Homo Deus says our free will is at stake. We talk to Yuval Noah Harari about his new book.

Read more
Why there's no 'clash of civilisations' between Islam and the West
96558 2018-09-22 00:00:00Z Social issues

Why there's no 'clash of civilisations' between Is…

by Yuval Noah Harari

There is just one civilisation in the world, writes Yuval Noah Harari, and the West and Islam are joint participants in it.

Read more
The Kiwi cicada expert who's just 11 years old
94985 2018-09-22 00:00:00Z Science

The Kiwi cicada expert who's just 11 years old

by Ken Downie

Hamilton entomologist Olly Hills isn’t in high school yet, but he’s already a world expert – and he wrote a book.

Read more
Thackeray's Vanity Fair gets a clever update for the millenial age
96633 2018-09-22 00:00:00Z Television

Thackeray's Vanity Fair gets a clever update for t…

by Russell Brown

A new TV version of William Makepeace Thackeray’s 19th-century satirical novel taps into today's celebrity-Instagram culture.

Read more
The debate over the Serena Williams controversy was a dialogue of the deaf
96659 2018-09-22 00:00:00Z Sport

The debate over the Serena Williams controversy wa…

by Paul Thomas

Serena Williams’ US Open outburst was unbecoming but the umpire made a mess of his response.

Read more
The classical blokes saluting unsung women composers
96670 2018-09-21 14:16:06Z Music

The classical blokes saluting unsung women compose…

by The Listener

The suffrage celebrations get a soundtrack from all-male ensemble NZTrio.

Read more
Labour MPs stand behind Jacinda Ardern's action on Meka Whaitiri
96630 2018-09-21 07:31:30Z Politics

Labour MPs stand behind Jacinda Ardern's action on…

by Gia Garrick

The public will have to wait to see a report into an assault claim against MP Meka Whaitiri, who was yesterday stripped of her ministerial portfolios.

Read more