Review: Song of the Sea God by Chris Hill (£8.99, Skylight Press, 2012)Posted: July 30, 2013
‘Since childhood I have loved to be out in the rain,’ confides our narrator at the beginning of this island novel, which is interrupted by the occasional flotsam or a chorus or two, but for the most part is told through the eyes of our marine hermit.
It begins, for no reason connected to the subsequent plot, with a drowning. Not in water, mind, but in pancreatitis:
I remember the moment I died.
The end came subdued, like a doctor on call. There was no sensation. Feelings belonged to a different world—one which had finished with me.
The disconnection, weightlessness and sheer passivity of being engulfed by that region of space known in this project as ‘underwater’ echoes in the language and serves as a metaphor for the passing from life into death. Even the words on the page descend as if through water. For a drowning man, the dark, silence, stillness, and isolation of the underwater makes it a place of liminality between life and death:
the lights went out. Everything was gone. The baleful glow of the night lamps, the red pinpricks on the glum machines No sound, not even my own breathing… Just me in my own in silent darkness.
The disconnection from the overwater world brings with it a feeling of total immersion, described as the ‘only moment I have ever felt in tune with the orchestra of the universe.’ But our narrator is not to be consumed by the figurative underwater yet, and with a ‘florid rush of belonging’, resurfaces back into life.
As we return from the mainland hospital to the island where the story unfolds, the sea continues to haunt the language. Drunk on a golf course, our narrator watches the arrival of a storm with a ‘thrill of impending newness.’ The sea as a source of drama, change, and rejuvenation from above ground, as opposed to the murky stillness of the underwater, is brought to life in what is perhaps the best descriptive passage of the novel. The sky ‘weighed down like a fat man sleeping on a top bunk’ echoes Prufrock’s ‘patient etherised upon a table’, albeit with more slobbery overtones, and the ‘camera click of lightning’ leaving a ‘river tributary’ on the retina is a wonderful image, the seascape so immersing our narrator that it is etched aquatically into the backs of their eyes.
With the arrival of John Love on the shore of this storm, apparently the sea god to whom the title refers, the narrative travels inland. A turning point in the novel may be the revelation that the Ferry pub to which we are taken provides the hospitality of the ‘Little Shepherdess Pub Company Limited.’ The islanders’ connection to the sea is evidently nominal, commercial, and inauthentic. John Love is not himself much of a sea god, more a combination of Christ, John the Baptist, TV psychic, and demented cult leader. The religious satire is hard to miss, with Love a fisher of men who notes ‘Easier to catch fish when something stirs them up.’ Stir them up he certainly does, to the point at which they start to project onto him their sea-salted spiritual instincts.
‘I don’t know much about gods’ remarks an islander, ‘but I know the sea. When I think how a boat engine works, I know what each little component does. No-one can say that about the sea. But we go out to sea in a boat.’ Oceanographers may or may not agree with this statement, but this is not the point. To the islanders, the fear of being overwater, of being suspended and borne upon a body of water both literally and figuratively unfathomable to the untrained eye, echoes their paganistic fear of the mysteries of the spiritual dimension. It is not the power of the sea, or the Other side, that Love exploits but the power of the belief in these mysteries. After his initial tipsy rhapsodies, our narrator admits a fear of weather, as does another character on the island who also fears drowning from the overflow of a blocked sink. When the islanders argue, it is like gulls over a fish, when someone strays from convention they are deemed to ‘swim too far from the shoal.’ Cut off from the rest of society and the main stream of religion, the sea supplies a point of reference otherwise lacking in experience. Our only-child narrator, unable to recall the rivalrous fun of hearing a sibling being told off, instead confesses feeling ‘smug’ when others are ‘in trouble and you’re not – like being tucked up in bed when there’s a storm outside.’ Whether the lack in the islander’s lives is of traditional religion, or of a full empirical education, the gaps in their experiences and explanations are filled by the sea, nature abhorring a vacuum.
It will not come as a great surprise that all does not turn out particularly well for the islanders. Indeed, at one point the plot takes a particularly nasty turn (involving fire, not water), which feels glossed over as the narrator subsequently resumes their observation of the mundanity of island life over the ‘sacrament’ of tea. Once this reader had recovered from this particular episode, however, the story is tightly paced and entertainingly told. The Christ allusions in John Love’s behaviour are at the very least a little cheeky given his indifferent exploitation of the meek, but one assumes these allusions are being made by the character, not the author.
For the most part, the novel encapsulates the bracing, bawdy fun of an eccentrically cold dip at a northern seaside town, the protagonists not so much mermaids as kiss-me-quick sailors. Yet, despite being ‘at two with nature’ the islanders have evidently absorbed something of the mystery and lyricism of the sea which hovers in the recesses of their imaginations. The ‘hallucinations’ of miracles performed by their sea god take place ‘on the shifting cusp where land (meets) water’, and the strange uncertainty of seascape horizons becomes a liminal place of transformation. In this, the drowning underwater space evoked at the beginning of the novel finds a resonance in the overwater spaces where the islanders see their visions of figures in the smoke. Both intersect the physical and mystical, and offer a space of transition. And, if Chris Hill teaches us nothing else, both might yield up a rubber ducky or two.
Song of the Sea God can be ordered online at Skylight Press. Readers of this blog may also be interested in other titles from Skylight Press, such as The Romance of the Faery Melusine: a translation of a 1920s mermaid tale by Gareth Knight.
About the Reviewer
Miranda Mourby studied English Literature at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. She was called to the Bar in 2012. She has excellent taste in hats and sometimes, but not always, coordinates them dashingly with passing London Underground signs. (—LFS).