Posts Tagged ‘cove’

Cove

June 17, 2018

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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