I paddled through Cove by Cynan Jones this week. It’s a joyously short (some 90 pages book brought to us by Granta. I may have said this one hundred times before — but if you’re writing a novel, please make it the shortest best thing you can, for my sake.
The story follows a man taking his father’s ashes out to sea in their old kayak as a storm edges in. He’s struck by lightning and we follow his amnesiac attempts at survival. Here’s a tiny taste:
The language of the book is sparse with short paragraphs almost entirely snatched at the crest of a wave. The flavour comes from exactness of that language — he “husbands” his exploded and ruined finger, the “gunwale”, the “stile” and so on. This isn’t exotic or unusual language; it’s just exactly what is needed at the time to describe exactly what is happening with complete utility.
While there are moments of lyricism and magic — the arrival of the sunfish which rubs against the boat and possibly keeps him within reach of land — there is a sense that the language can be so plain and sparse because of the obviousness of the sublime of the sea. The situation needs no adornment, we are simply told what events are when they happen: “the sun drops beautifully” for example.
This plainness of language fits with the shock of the lightning strike and the grieving. The man goes out to the sea to spread his father’s ashes — or to have a fishing trip with his father before doing so. He hears his father’s voice in the early parts of the story, as is common for the grieving. When lightning strikes, the man is covered in his father’s ashes — and he loses his memory of what he is doing out there or even who he really is.
Unmoored, literally and figuratively, he tries to piece back together what he was doing with the objects around him. Like the obviousness of the language that we use to put things together, he then has to do the same — coming to the conclusion that he was fishing too far out, and that’s all, to begin with.
The simplicity of his situation means that he in the first instance loses the notion of his father, and the notion of his partner — for whom he left a very short note about buying salad.
This note, and thoughts about not mentioning where he was going, shows the possessiveness that grief gives people over the past. The future is, at the beginning of the story, of less importance.
He in losing these things can only reach for primal survival instincts, deep things that simply tell him to move towards the land, to ration his water, to eat the raw fish he’d caught earlier.
The forgetting levels his grief with his future. We know he came to the boat with the idea of his father’s ashes; he wanted to speak to them to make them real. He was at the end of his grieving, but not yet looking up to the future. His survival push takes that weight of the past and puts it in the lap of the future — making the throwaway note about salad and everything that surviving would mean as important.
With this grief is overturned, the voice of his father comes to him to provide guidance toward the future, not as something from the past that he wants to keep to himself.
Looking for poems with percentages, unearthed this:
By Heather Christle.
I think I need to pick this up: Bianca Stone, from Blue Jays in The Möbius Strip Club of Grief
Thank you for reading Etch To Their Own, which squats upstream of your inbox every Friday like an inconsiderate medieval neighbour. It was written by me, Chris. This is a comic about birds, beasts, and fish that I noticed today. One for the lapin du mer fans. Don’t tell me that’s not French. I got a really nice email about how someone — one of you lovely people — reads my newsletter as part of their Sunday ritual. It warmed all parts of me that are decent yet internal. If you like any of this, it’s nice to hear, also, if you spot a typo, please let me know and I might even correct it. Someone has released my nudes apparently. IRL ❤ emoji or actual death? MORE SYNTH. I once thought about getting into modular synth, but I am not smart enough nor to be trusted with wires.