The Ocean

James Hanley

Harvill Press 1999 [1941]
A book review by Danny Yee © 2003
When his ship is torpedoed in the night, the sailor Curtain finds himself in a lifeboat with four passengers. One is an ancient priest, another barely twenty, and a third has suffered a blow to the head. Curtain must hold them together in the face of doubt, thirst, and illness.

The Ocean mixes descriptions of thoughts, memories, and dreams with dialogue, jumping from person to person but never losing its footing. It is a story of human struggle against adversity, with some evocative descriptions of the ocean — James Hanley spent many years at sea himself — but above all a study of five individuals. It is through them, through their hopes and fears, their courage and their weaknesses, that the external events — whales, rain, possible ships — are rendered.

The paper shortage in wartime Britain no doubt contributed to the brevity of The Ocean, first published in 1941. It also has two episodes that are obvious propaganda, with machine-gunning of survivors by the Germans contrasted with British behaviour. but these are just trappings on a work which is not actually "war fiction" at all. After reading this and Henry Green's Caught, I have to wonder what other now neglected gems were published in Britain during the war.

April 2003

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Related reviews:
- James Hanley - The Welsh Sonata
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%T The Ocean
%A Hanley, James
%I Harvill Press
%D 1999 [1941]
%O paperback
%G ISBN 1860466753
%P 152pp