RISINGTIDEFALLINGSTAR by Philip Hoare – book review

by Mark Broatch / 28 November, 2017
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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.

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