Friday, September 30

The Draw of the Sea by Wyl Menmuir review – a personal homage to the coast | Autobiography and memoir

Yot was a tragedy that sent novelist Wyl Menmuir to the “demi-island” of Cornwall, with its long and sinuous shoreline. In 2011, his first child was stillborn and he went with his wife down to the wild north coast of the county to escape. It was winter, and cold, and yet he walked into the ocean. “And for a few moments the grief wasn’t silenced so much as confronted by a wall of deafening white noise muting its constant scream. The sea’s great indifference was a comfort in a way I can’t easily explain and it continues to play its part.”

now, in The Draw of the SeaMenmuir, whose 2016 Booker-longlisted novel The Many was set in a fishing village in Cornwall, has turned his focus on the place the sea plays in Britain’s collective consciousness, the way we have been shaped by the waters that surround us. He intercuts his own story of him – he moved to Cornwall in 2013 and he and his family of him now live a watery existence, swimming, surfing, rockpooling and beachcombing – with a broader consideration of the lives of a motley collection of seafarers.

The book’s first chapter draws on the work of the Cornish playwright Nick Darke, whose ending movie was a documentary charting the history of Cornish wreckers. While, as Menmuir says, “the term wreckers brings to mind false lights and ships lured on to the rocks”, there is little evidence that wrecking was ever this nefarious. Rather, it is the tradition, largely Cornish, of scouring the beaches for objects of greater or lesser use that are brought in by storms and the great ocean currents.

Menmuir is an inveterate beachcomber, carrying out what he calls “flotsamancy” – reading complex histories into the objects he finds. As Darke’s widow says to him, these objects “make the whole world seem a whole lot smaller, a lot more connected”. He knows this intimately – his house was constructed of Nigerian iroko wood that fell from a ship off Penzance.

The book is oriented south westerly, with the chapters taking place either in Cornwall or on the Isles of Scilly, 25 miles further out into the Atlantic. It is here that Menmuir and his family holiday de el and Scilly serves as a kind of dream landscape for him, one in which he is more easily able to immerse himself in the maritime world. The islands of the archipelago were once a single larger island, Ennor, and Menmuir uses the memory of this place to explore the legend of Lyonesse, the Arthurian Atlantis.

The Draw of the Sea is particularly good on the natural world. There’s a wonderful story of the traditional method of hunting conger eels in Scilly – you suspend a small boy in front of the hole in which they live, wait for the eel to wrap itself around him and then pull the boy up. Elsewhere, we learn that barnacles have a “lucky dip penis” up to eight times the length of their body. They reach blindly out with their extensive members in the hope of encountering a nearby mate – of either sex, barnacles being hermaphroditic.

Menmuir’s novels are full of beautiful language and this, too, is a book that sings. He describes the feeling he gets by the sea as akin to “what I imagine the cathedral builders sought to achieve when they lifted the clerestories to the sky, creating a huge space to inspire awe and to humble, to lift the heart, a space filled with light and wonder”. That light and wonder illuminate the pages of this magical book, a fitting tribute to the majesty and mystery of the sea.

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