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Beyond the Sea: A lucid, lyrical tale of two lost men

Book review: Paul Lynch’s spare and precise novel has a detached, almost mythical quality

Beyond the Sea
Author: Paul Lynch
ISBN-13: 978-1786076489
Publisher: Oneworld
Guideline Price: £12.99

When Bolivar, a fisherman from an unnamed South American village, hears that there is a storm coming, he ignores the warning and is determined to go out to sea. Commandeering Hector, a long-haired boy with “loose arms” and a “stooped build”, the two set out at night to fish. Full of bravado and masculine hubris (“Real men are used to this type of thing. I have not yet met a storm that is the boss of me”), Bolivar pushes onward, certain of his power over nature. In an unsurprising twist of fate, the two men are blown out to sea and must try to survive.

This is a spare and often precise novel. It attains a certain lyricism that is a testament to Lynch’s restraint and eye for a sharp image. Observing the stasis and sudden event of life on a lost boat, far at sea, it takes on a dreamlike, even hallucinatory quality towards the end, and earns this through the clarity of its vision. This is a world where time drips, holds still, rushes and seems to abandon the fishermen almost entirely. At one point, Hector says, “I am watching my life but I cannot live it. So I have decided this must be a dream. It is the only thing that makes sense to me. But what I cannot figure out is this – am I dreaming or is God dreaming it?”

There is a detached, almost mythical quality to the writing that supports this idea of life lived outside of the stays of reality. The novel, which is meditative, has echoes of Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and also something of Yann Martel’s Life of Pi (though without the fabular quality of either).

Sudden isolation

The opening sequence plunges us quickly and thrillingly into the core of the tale, its flashes of narrative capturing effectively the panic and sudden isolation of the two men. Suddenly, all is stillness – “days of hammering sun, the sea the sun’s anvil” – and Hector and Bolivar must make use of whatever tools they can find in order to survive. Over the course of the book, the friendship between the men shifts. We learn their back stories and the causes of their vulnerabilities. However, Beyond the Sea’s mirroring of the stasis of being stuck at sea – of time blurring and slowing, of long days passing uneventfully – sometimes lags, and the prose itself is not enough to carry the book.

Lynch’s writing is, in places, a little florid. This isn’t always a bad thing (there are times when the language attains a poetic intensity that is unusual and well-earned); however, at times this tendency towards slightly purple prose leads him to make awkward constructions. There are, for example, many slightly grating uses of “upon”. Rather than taking a drag of cannabis, “Bolivar sucks upon the joint”. At other times, the characters “meet” their feelings: “He searches his mind and meets a feeling.”

Plastic pellets

At other points, Lynch gives us images that run away with themselves. Watching his beloved Rosa awake and get out of a hammock, Bolivar “blinks at her twice and an old part of his mind thinks of her as some witch in the dark until she rolls up the screen and her body finds its expression”. A more coercive editorial hand, in such instances, would have helped to maintain the polished finish that the majority of the work displays.

Occasionally, Beyond the Sea hints towards an engagement with pressing concerns – the floating plastic in the ocean which the two men use to survive, or the political and economic realities of their lives on land. Towards the beginning, after spearing a turtle, Bolivar “drains the blood into a cup, cuts open the flesh to find it full of plastic white pellets”. However, this remains largely an isolated novel, untethered to the contemporary world.

What Lynch gives us is a good story, though it is not gripping enough in its plot for the story alone to make it memorable. Its prose is lucid, but is not concerned with depth of thought in a way that would excuse the lack of event. This is not to say that the novel isn’t solid, or that it isn’t enjoyable, but it does mean that the capacity for the narrative to make a lasting impact is unfortunately limited.

Seán Hewitt

Seán Hewitt, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a teacher, poet and critic