Maud and Tim are an unlikely couple – he gregarious and open, she lacking any kind of personality whatsoever, of any kind, and apparently unable to speak in sentences longer than four words, despite her intelligence. However, he falls in love with her and she… well, acquiesces is the word that springs to mind. They have a good deal of fairly passionless yet intimately described sex which, thankfully, results at last in a pregnancy. I say thankfully because the exhaustion brought on by the child stops them having more sex for a while. But after a few years of living together, during which Maud’s contribution to the household conversation gradually adds up to roughly twenty words, tragedy strikes! No, sadly not Maud. She survives – proving yet again that there is no justice in this world. Unable to express her emotions, assuming she has any, Maud takes off in her beloved boat where she can sail and sail and sail without having to speak to anyone at all. Fortunately she manages to have a last bout of sex just before weighing anchor, just in case any reader was missing it…
Oh dear! Sometimes a book and a reader just don’t gel and I fear that’s the case with this reader and this book. And yet I feel I’m probably being unfair. It reminded me in many ways of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, only much better written I hasten to add, and while I thought that book was pretty awful, 99% of the rest of the universe seemed to think it was wonderful. Basically it’s a coming to terms with grief story but with a central character with so little personality that I couldn’t feel any empathy for her. Perhaps we’re supposed to assume that inside she’s a seething cauldron of suppressed emotion, but if so it’s too well suppressed. Or perhaps she’s supposed to be autistic. I don’t know – but she behaves like a speech-free automaton for the whole book, forming no real relationships with any of the other characters, though of course all the men she meets are attracted to her, for no reason I could understand.
The first half is taken up with her one-sided relationship with Tim, who seems to think she’s vulnerable and that he needs to take care of her. But in fact, she’s so self-sufficient that the rest of the world doesn’t really impinge on her at all. When their child is born, Maud returns to work leaving Tim to be the child-carer. After a failed attempt to get the baby to enjoy sailing, Maud begins to leave Tim and the child at home at weekends while she goes off alone in her beloved boat.
The tragedy happens about halfway through and from there on the book tells us of Maud’s attempt to deal with her (presumed) grief by taking to the seas on a solo sailing trip. I hoped that might be more interesting but sadly Maud’s lack of emotion now becomes coupled with endless, tediously over-detailed descriptions of how to sail a boat, using a bunch of nautical terminology that meant most of it created no images in my mind…
She shackles the tack to the base of the spare stay then hanks on until she reaches the head. Every thirty seconds the sea sweeps over her legs. Water forces itself up the inside of her salopettes, forces itself under her jacket, down the back of her salopettes. She crawls to the mast, drops the remains of the mainsail, binds it with bungees, then bangs her shoulders against the mast while she finds a halyard for the storm jib. She uncleats the halyard, slithers back to the jib, undoes the halyard shackle with the marlinspike she once gave to Tim as a present but which later, somehow, became her marlinspike, attaches the head of the jib, frees the sheets from the furling jib, reties the bowlins through the clew of the storm jib, hoists the jib from the mast, regains the cockpit, sheets in the jib, cleats it, and sits on the grid of the cockpit sole, her chest heaving, her clothes soaked through.
Perhaps people who sail will find this kind of description riveting, but I’m afraid I found it about as thrilling as the instructions on a piece of Ikea do-it-yourself furniture, and even less comprehensible. By the two-thirds stage I was skimming pages, hoping desperately to get to the end.
And then the ending brings the same kind of semi-mystical mumbo-jumbo that nauseated me so much in Harold Fry. Miller avoids the sickly sweetness of that book, but unfortunately also avoids either credibility or emotional warmth. So, highly recommended to people who love Harold Fry, sailing terminology and silent automatons, but for everyone else… not so much.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Hodder & Stoughton.