Paul Lynch, for the uninitiated, is the author of four novels: Red Sky in the Morning, The Black Snow, Grace and now Beyond the Sea. Grace bagged him the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year in 2018 and was shortlisted for the Walter Scott Historical Fiction and William Saroyan International Prize for Writing that same year. He has previously won France’s Prix Libr’a Nous for Best Foreign Novel and was a finalist for the Prix du Meilleur Livre Etranger. Why are we running through his literary CV in advance of reviewing his latest novel, newly out in paperback? We’ll tell you: Paul Lynch is a talent and not enough people know his name.
Beyond the Sea concerns two fishermen, Bolivar and Hector. They set out to sea in a storm, get turned about, end up lost. That is pretty much it. That’s the story for you. Two men lost at sea. Oh but what Lynch does with it. My o my. At the height of the storm that pretty much opens the book, Bolivar finds himself ruminating:
“For a moment Bolivar can see them on some prehistoric Earth met by perpetual storm, time unravelled, no day or night, no distance to be measured. What the world once was or yet will be.”
As you’d expect, at least to begin with, this is a tale of survival.
“At night Bolivar dreams his thirst. Dreams drinking water just beyond reach. Walking with an empty cup. The dryness spreading about the body – the flesh withering, the slowly baking bones, the blood turning to powder. He dreams he wakes in sudden panic before the absolute night sea. A fear in the dream that the world is moving beyond him.”
Time and again, Lynch conjures a phrase or an image that – just does the job. “Days of hammering sun, the sea the sun’s anvil.” Take this, when Bolivar guts a fish on the deck of their rudderless boat:
“When Bolivar slides the knife into the flesh, the incision jets a spurt of blood. He puts his hand into the fish, pulls out the heart and places it on the deck. He drains the blood into a cup but the heart of the fish continues to beat in reflex. Slowly Bolivar works the knife through the flesh but the heart still beating free of the body calls out to them. They stare at it, this heart that can never go back into the body and yet it still beats. Look at that, Bolivar says. Even in death the heart doesn’t give up.”
That last line, there, might well be the true story of Beyond the Sea. As you’d expect, it gets into it – existence, all of the big questions – in a big way. And, finding ourselves as we are, gripped by lockdown fever, the world in a strange mixture of tumult and extraordinary calm, the words have an additional resonance:
“Time now is not time. It does not pass it rests. This is what he thinks. The days now passing within an arresting of time. Or sometimes he thinks time is passing without him, passing overhead or around him or underneath but not within. He tries to reason it out, how it is like some enormous thing, something unaccountable to all thought, action or utterance. You have been cut off from its passing and yet it continues…”
Eventually the urgency of the emergency swallows its own tail:
“I have not been a good person. So I am spending this time remembering. I am revisiting each action. I can see myself back there as I am doing each thing. I see the action and I experience pain when I see it…”
Bolivar mourns the loss of a daughter, lost not through death but selfishness; Hector the loss of his lover, Lucrezia, who he suspects will be in the arms of someone else. Yet even the solipsism is eventually replaced, by horror, by eyeless ghouls, by voices in fog, by starvation, depredation, misery. For a book just shy of 200 pages, Lynch takes you on a journey and a half. If you’ve yet to dip your toes in the Paul Lynch waters you could do worse than start here.
Any Cop?: This is only our second Paul Lynch book – we still have Red Sky in the Morning and Grace ahead of us – and we’re really grateful for that. If you have all four books ahead of you – enjoy!