You know how sand pools cool in the shadows when you step into it from out of the sun? Yeah, well that’s how he feels, I think, this boy, when he comes in out of the glare to the deep blueness of the shadows here. Like…It’s relief, I think. To be out of the light in this place where the tall trees hang down their long branches…
That is the lovely opening of The Boy and the Sea, Kirsty Gunn’s novella about a single day on the beach. Just as she did in Featherstone, she sets up an amazing sense of place from the very first, and an atmosphere. The beach is hot and sunny; that’s where Ward’s friend Alex and the girls they hang out with are talking and sunbathing. But there’s also coolness and shade, where Ward can hang back on his own, watching, looking at the sea, thinking about the way the sand feels under his toes.
Ward and Alex are both surfers, but it’s Ward who is in touch enough with the sea to know about the wave that’s coming later. Quiet and introspective, spending his time at the beach watching the water rather than the girls, he can see “the way the waves are breaking, little chinks and low and even but a creel of white foam there, at the base of the cliff and there’s a rise up past where the cliff juts out, like the water’s backing into itself…And that’s going to come to something later on.”
Ward’s inwardness contrasts with Alex’s sociability, but the friend is hardly a butterfly flitting between social events. In fact, he seems almost more mature. He is able to bridge both worlds: he understands Ward and his shyness and thoughtfulness, but he’s also able to have fun. Of course, what he doesn’t understand is Ward’s relationship with his family.
His family is the reason Ward can see what’s coming later—his father was a surfer too, who moved from up north to this place because he knew about the rare current patterns that would come once in a while and create a truly great wave. Ward struggles throughout with thoughts of his father being with his mother, and the easy physical relationship they still have. The naturalness with which he feels cut off from his protecting mother and alienated by his strong father shows off Gunn’s talents in a very subtle way. Emotions that could be so trite are instead quietly powerful, and the soul of this 15-year-old boy is laid bare so delicately.
It all goes so well with the atmosphere, too. The tension in this day on the beach is deftly managed from that first scene in the shadows through the climax of the great wave until the tired evening. Just 140 pages in the Faber and Faber edition I have, but a good slow burn. I’m completely in love with the poetry in Gunn’s language, and she has such a successful intimacy with her characters’ psychology. I must give thanks to Verbivore, whose posts on Gunn inspired me to read her. How had I never heard of this lovely writer before? People should know about this.