My Top 5 Nautical Novels

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In just under a week’s time I’ll be kicking back on board a boat, gliding peacefully through the beautiful Norfolk Broads with some friends.  You can’t get a more relaxing holiday than this, and the prospect of a week without work, wifi or any kind of frantic activity is incredibly appealing.  There is also, of course, plenty of time for reading – hopefully in the sun but definitely with a glass of Prosecco in hand.  I thought, therefore, it was the perfect time to count down my top 5 nautical novels (or to be more accurate, books that have boats in them!)  So here goes…

  1. Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh – in any list relating to seafaring you simply couldn’t leave this out. It’s the first in a series of books called The Ibis Trilogy, set in the run up to and during the Opium Wars.  Almost every character in the immense cast can be linked in some way to the formidable ship, the Ibis, and in its company we travel half way round the world to exotic places and alien cultures.  Even when the vessel is hundreds of miles away from the action, its presence is felt in the shared history of its passengers and crew.  It’s Ghosh’s masterpiece.
  2. The Picts and the Martyrs by Arthur Ransome – “Swallows and Amazons” may be his most famous book but for some reason this one was always my favourite of the series. The arrival of a dreaded Great Aunt forces the young adventurers to find devious ways to carry out their quests, and I remember desperately wanting to be part of their world of climbing, camping and of course sailing. The idea that children my own age could handle a boat – on their own! – was a dream to me; in fact all these books are a paean to the freedom that children now so seldom get to experience.
  3. Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K Jerome – I have to confess I’ve used this book before for another of my top 5 lists – but it’s just so good! And to be honest I couldn’t not include it here, as the story of a bunch of amateurs attempting to learn the ways of the river is going to be pretty close to the mark in a few days’ time!
  4. All the Rivers run by Nancy Cato – someone leant me this book many years ago now, but it still sparks very vivid memories. It takes place in large part on a paddle steamer during the glory days of river transport in Australia, and follows the loves, ambitions and disappointments of a young English girl who becomes torn between the romance of the river and the pull of the town and its potential for intellectual and artistic fulfilment.  It will sweep you away as the river sweeps a boat downstream…
  5. Life of Pi by Yann Martel – is there a more mystical, dreamlike nautical sojourn than this? It contains a boy, a boat and what is possibly the most famous tiger in literature, and is stuffed full of meaning and metaphor.  The author really knew how to capture the imagination with this book, and makes you part of a sea voyage the like of which you’ll never find again.

As ever, I’d love to know which books would be on your list so do share your thoughts!

“Flood of Fire” by Amitav Ghosh – review

“Flood of Fire” is the final part of the Ibis trilogy, following on from “Sea of Poppies” and “River of Smoke”.  I should say from the outset, this is one of those times when you absolutely must read the books in order or you’ll be lost within minutes!   In fact, although I read parts two and three in fairly quick succession it was a long time since I’d read the first instalment, and to be honest I struggled to recall many of the plot details that were crucial to the trilogy’s conclusion.  So my advice, before I even start reviewing, is get your hands on part one and if you enjoy it crack straight on with volumes two and three before you lose track!

The complex nature of the plotting across the three novels is one of the reasons I love the books so much.  I can’t even use the usual analogies of a web or tapestry, as they suggest a plot that grows steadily outwards from a starting point.  I would say it’s more like crazy paving: fragments of people and places pop up, disappear and reappear, only forming a coherent whole in the final moments when the structure is complete and you can finally stand back and appreciate it in its entirety.  The trilogy’s lynchpin is the Ibis, a ship that we come across right at the beginning carrying a motley crew of passengers from all corners of the globe.  From there the story takes us to India, China and all the high seas in between.  We meet sailors, botanists, smugglers, opium dealers and petty criminals, all playing their part in the momentous events that form the backdrop to the story: the Opium Wars.

By the time “Flood of Fire” takes place the Opium Wars are reaching their peak.  Whereas the conflict of the first two novels is mostly emotional and cultural, in this final part it becomes actual military action.  The various military campaigns are unquestionably crucial to the plot, as almost all the book’s characters become caught up in them in some way, but for me they were the least interesting sections to read.  That’s not to say the author foregoes his human stories for the sake of dry accounts of military procedure: all the battles are seen through the eyes of those taking part in the brutality and the effect on the combatants is very clear.  I guess for me, detailed descriptions of warfare are simply not something I like to read.  Every other aspect of the novel, though, I thought was superb.  The thing I found most remarkable was how skilfully the author juggles a cast of characters extending into numbers that in many novels would seem ridiculous.  Nobody’s story feels redundant and nobody’s story makes you skim through the pages until you get back to someone interesting.  The fate of some individuals definitely took me by surprise; some strands of the story end neatly but others hint at more uncertain futures to come, all the more intriguing because we know they will never be revealed.

If you’ve read any other Amitav Ghosh novels this one will definitely not disappoint.  If you haven’t, I would possibly recommend trying one of his standalone books (“The Glass Palace” is my favourite of these) before tackling this trilogy.  And if, like me, you’ve been waiting eagerly for “Flood of Fire” for some time then I can assure you it’s well worth the wait.