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 death of Radio Live
99147 2018-11-16 06:54:48Z Radio

The death of Radio Live

by Colin Peacock

14 years after launching “the new voice of talk radio”, MediaWorks will silence Radio Live. Mediawatch looks at what could replace it.

Read more
Should Lime scooters stay or should they go?
99103 2018-11-16 00:00:00Z Social issues

Should Lime scooters stay or should they go?

by The Listener

For every safety warning, there’ll be a righteous uproar about the public good regarding the environment. It's about finding the right balance.

Read more
Kiwi drama Vermilion is hamstrung by a frustrating lack of clarity
98992 2018-11-16 00:00:00Z Movies

Kiwi drama Vermilion is hamstrung by a frustrating…

by James Robins

Academic and film-maker Dorthe Scheffmann has had a hand in some of New Zealand cinema’s most beloved movies. So what went wrong?

Read more
Win the 100 Best Books of 2018
99119 2018-11-16 00:00:00Z Win

Win the 100 Best Books of 2018

by The Listener

Each year, the Listener offers one lucky subscriber the chance to win all 100 of our Best Books.

Read more
Full of light and art, Forestry Cafe is south-east Auckland's newest coffee spot
99142 2018-11-15 16:49:34Z Auckland Eats

Full of light and art, Forestry Cafe is south-east…

by Alex Blackwood

New opening Forestry Cafe brings a city vibe to Flat Bush.

Read more
Turning a corner: Why this wayward Auckland teen stayed in school
99114 2018-11-15 10:34:07Z Social issues

Turning a corner: Why this wayward Auckland teen s…

by Vomle Springford

When Acer Ah Chee-Wilson was 14, he wanted to be in a gang.

Read more
What Kate Sheppard said that changed the course of New Zealand politics forever
99084 2018-11-15 00:00:00Z Politics

What Kate Sheppard said that changed the course of…

by Noted

Helen Clark and even Meghan Markle have quoted Kate Sheppard – what did she say that was so powerful?

Read more
Why Bret McKenzie is going straight with a new band
99026 2018-11-15 00:00:00Z Profiles

Why Bret McKenzie is going straight with a new ban…

by Russell Baillie

After a year of stadium comedy and Muppet shows, Bret McKenzie talks about returning to his music roots in a band whose songs are no laughing matter.

Read more