Welsh writer Cynan Jones’ novel Cove, with its short blocks of text probing the blankness of its pages, may look to the casual browser like poetry, but it is as tense as any thriller, as taut as a sail in storm. Most of its action takes place at sea, where its narrator finds himself lost, injured in a lightning strike, and with no clear memory of who he is or why he is there. It begins, however, in the second person, as a pregnant woman walks along the shore. From the first lines the novel walks a tightrope between life and death, the child inside her immediately juxtaposed with a missing child reported by a passing boat. As the men search they miss a doll washed onto the shore: every small thing seems portentous and important. Only later will we discover that this prelude is a coda.

The unborn child’s father is the narrator of the rest of the story, having taken his kayak out to sea to fish and to scatter the ashes of his father. While at sea he is struck by lightning, knocking him unconscious:

“He wakes floating on his back, caught on a cleat by the elastic toggle of his wetsuit shoe. Around him hailstones melt and sink. They are scattered on the kayak, roll off as it bobs on the slight waves. There is a hissing sound. The hailstones melting in the water.”

From this point on Cove is a story of survival: he cannot move his arms, one of his eyes won’t open:

“It hurt to breathe because his whole body hurt. As if he had suffered a massive fall.”

He also no longer knows in which direction land lies: there is a “complete horizon” – a “horizon everywhere around and no point of it seemed closer than another.” He has not told anyone where he is – leaving only a note that said ‘Pick salad x’ – and knows that rescue is unlikely. One might say the narrator is pitted against the elements, but instead it is suggested nature is capricious, it’s actions arbitrary. We see this in two small incidents seemingly unrelated to the main story: the woman’s discovery of a dead pigeon, killed, she thinks, by a peregrine; and the man’s memory of a wren caught by a cat:

“The bird vibrated briefly when he picked it up, a shudder of life. Then flew away.”

(A wren’s feather will be his good luck charm). It is these connections across the pages which suggest the novel has been created with the precision of a jeweller. On the first page the woman thinks she feels a kick from the baby; later, when the kayak jumps over a wave the man feels “a kick under his hand, the ocean of her stomach.” When she first sees something on the shore she thinks it’s a wetsuit shoe (“and the world tips”), and discovering the pigeon she feels “a strange sense of horror”:

“That it knew before being struck. Of it trying to get home. Of something throwing it off course.”

Jones is an exquisite writer, again and again finding exactly the right words. When the narrator has spent a night on the water he feels:

“The night he had come through seemed tangible, as if it hung around him.”

He describes the kayak with words as unexpected as they are accurate:

“Scales of mackerel decal the inside, here and there a zip of dried blood.”

These phrases enhance rather dilute the urgency of the narrative, but allow Jones to create his own pace. Cove is a quite wonderful piece of writing, powerfully reminding us of life and of death, and of the feather’s breadth between.

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16 Responses to “Cove”

  1. kimbofo Says:

    I love Cynan Jones’ work. I’ve read The Dig and The Long Dry and they were both tautly written gems. The Cove sounds like more of the same and it has promptly gone onto my wishlist thanks to your review.

  2. JacquiWine Says:

    Well, this does sound excellent. Funnily enough, he’s actually one of the few contemporary writers of real interest to me right now. A little like Kim, I was very struck by The Dig, which I picked up on a whim at the local library. Have you read it by chance?

    • 1streading Says:

      No, this was my first, though he has been a writer I’ve been interested in reading for a while. The brevity also appealed, though it definitely left an impression far exceeding its pages.

  3. readersretreat2017 Says:

    I have now read three of Jones’ works – The Dig, The Long Dry, and Cove and thought they were all excellent. There is something quite powerful about his spare writing!

  4. BookerTalk Says:

    I was expecting him to win the Wales Book of the Year prize last year with this but was surprised when he didn’t get it because I thought it was magnificent. I’ve struggled though to write anything coherent about the book – you managed it way better than I did.

  5. Max Cairnduff Says:

    I read his The Long Dry recently, I wrote a couple of short paragraphs on it in my February roundup ( It was very, very good and I bought this upon finishing it.

    You’re spot on with the prose. Spot on generally in fact. Like Booker I struggled to write anything coherent about Jones. He’s so precise anything I had to say about him seemed flabby in comparison.

    • 1streading Says:

      Yes, a novel so sparse and so exact in its language use is difficult to write about. I can understand why you immediately bought another of his books.

  6. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Did you see this short story in the Guardian?

    It’s either an earlier version of the same story or an excerpt, but I’m not clear which.

    • 1streading Says:

      Thanks. It seems to feature much of the novel, though not the opening which was also published separately as a short story. Interestingly he has added three lines to the end in Cove.

  7. Time played its usual trick in the presence of Holt House. | Pechorin's Journal Says:

    […] about a man lost at sea after surviving a lightning strike. Grant reviewed it well at 1streading here and I don’t have much to add to his piece. As with Jones’ The Dig it’s ruthlessly pared back […]

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