I’m about to confess something that’s probably only known to one other person in my life – my best friend from school who took literature class with me. For almost 20 years we’ve kept our silence, bonded by a secret we knew we could never reveal for fear of ridicule or contempt.
My friend has become a doctor and so is less likely to be judged. Me, I’m not so sure. I may be about to lose any credibility I’ve built as a book reviewer and columnist with this declaration: I absolutely hate The Old Man And The Sea.
I really, really wanted to love it. When Ernest Hemingway was assigned to us in class, I was thrilled. Finally I had a reason to procure that precious copy of the book on my father’s bookshelf, thumbed through by him and my grandfather.
They loved Hemingway and – like much of the literary world – considered The Old Man And The Sea one of his best. Hey, it won the Pulitzer in 1953! But several chapters into the story of an ageing Cuban fisherman who struggles to catch a giant fish, I was dreadfully bored.
The book is short, almost a novella, yet it felt painfully long. Having slogged all the way to the end, it felt like I had personally dragged that giant marlin for three days from the sea.
My only comfort was that my friend hated it too. Some of my best memories of literature class involved us taking turns to poke each other under the table so we didn’t fall asleep discussing the interminable book.
If you haven’t read The Old Man And The Sea, don’t let me stop you. There are enough people who revere it to make it worth your while. But as companions – or, if your experience ends up like mine, an antidote – here are five books about the ocean that may be smoother sailing.
Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea – Jules Verne (1870)
A science fiction classic that imagined sophisticated and surprisingly accurate undersea travel well before its time. This adventure novel on-board Captain Nemo’s submarine is exciting and, even today, quite awe-inspiring.
Wide Sargasso Sea – Jean Rhys (1966)
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte is one of my favourite Gothic novels, and Rhys’ counterpoint to it is brilliant, telling the story of Mr Rochester’s marriage from the POV of his mad wife locked up in the attic. Rhys brings an anti-colonial and feminist lens to Jane Eyre, while telling a story that is dark, complex and tragic.
The Ocean At The End Of The Lane – Neil Gaiman (2013)
In true Gaiman style, the “ocean” is actually a duck pond – except when it’s not. Equal parts magical and horrifying, this story of a man revisiting his family home – and long-forgotten memories – is a powerful and disturbing examination of childhood.
To The Lighthouse (1927) – Virginia Woolf (1927)
To The Lighthouse is a meditative read on relationships, loss, and growing up, set around the experiences of one family and their visits to the Isle of Skye in Scotland over the course of 10 years.
James And The Giant Peach – Roald Dahl (1961)
As a child, the story of a young boy sailing off on a giant peach accompanied by magical garden insects seemed like a weird and wonderful adventure. Reading the book now, what also comes through is Dahl’s trademark ability to balance the bitter realities of life with a childlike vision of the world.