Books to read by the sea
Updated: Feb 28
“By the deep sea and music in its roar, I love not man the less but nature more.”
Lord Byron, 1818.
It was late summer in England when Josh and I travelled to a little seaside village nestled between wild Cornish countryside and the Celtic Sea. For three short days we made ourselves at home in a topsy-turvy fisherman’s cottage in the village of Mousehole. We woke to the squawk of seagulls and salty sea air drifting through our open windows. We explored the winding cobbled streets where slate roofed, stone buildings curved their way around the harbor. The rain pattered nightly against the windows and we would curl into soft couches with a stack of old books. There is something uniquely special about reading the right book in the right place. Here are a few sea-inspired reads for your next holiday by the ocean.
The Salt Path: A Memoir, Raynor Winn, 2018.
Raynor and Moth Winn’s decision to walk the 630 mile South West Coast Path arose under a set of unusual and tragic circumstances. The couple suddenly found themselves homeless after losing the home they had raised their children and built a life in. Only days later, Moth received a terminal illness diagnosis for a degenerative brain disease. Raynor Winn’s affecting memoir describes their journey around the wild Devonshire and Cornish coast, and how the couple find solace in placing one foot in front of another. The memoir also considers our interactions with homeless people and how our society associates homelessness with self destructive behaviours such as drug and alcohol abuse. Raynor and Moth grapple with the reality of homelessness when they end up there after doing all of the right things. Raynor loses her sense of self as she scrambles on the floor for dropped coins, and takes a long time to consider herself as a homeless person. Fellow hikers are inspired by the pair when they think the walk is a choice, and recoil once they learn it is for survival. Their healing and safety comes from nature: the woods and sea. They even find a surprising sense of freedom in their new way of life. The Salt Path is a lyrical mediation on a pilgrimage of nature, grief and home.
The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock, Imogen Hermes Gower, 2018.
The sea and its mysterious depths have inspired a multitude of folktales, myths and legends. Imogen Hermes Gower draws on these myths when she pulls the reader into the seducing world of Georgian London. In 1785, Merchant Jonah Hancock is told his ship was sold in exchange for a dead mermaid. It doesn’t take long for others to hear about the creature, including the high-class brothel owner Mrs Chappel. Mrs Chappel assigns one of her girls, Angelica Neal, the task of coercing Mr Handcock into handing over the mermaid and from there, a series of turbulent events follow. Hermes Gower effortlessly merges historical fiction with magical realism, combining the brutal reality of the period with the fantastical magic of mermaid myths. She introduces us to a society that fantasizes about the freakish and where desire mingles with the repulse. Hermes Gower studied anthropology, art history and archaeology at the University of East Anglia before working in multiple museums. Her historical knowledge reflects in her precise descriptions of London docks, parlours, brothels and high society parties. Likewise she elegantly navigates the relationship between a merchant and a prostitute; between the high classes and the low. For a portion of the novel the characters only contend with a dead mermaid, but this quickly changes once a live mermaid is found and brought to London. The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock is a magical and alluring read.
Island of Dreams: A Personal History of a Remarkable Place, Dan Boothby, 2015
At age 15, Dan Boothby picked up one of Gavin Maxwell’s novels for the first time. Since then, Maxwell and his works have inhabited Boothby’s thoughts, imagination and travels. His fixation on the author led him to the rare opportunity of living in the lighthouse that Maxwell once occupied on Eilean Ban island. The exchange entailed Boothby restoring the lighthouse’s garden and touring visitors around the island during the summer. His idealism of Maxwell seems to stem from a sense of both men feeling like outsiders. Boothby describes himself as a drifter, having never settled down with a family, home or steady occupation. He had a gypsy-like childhood, traveling by horse and wagon with his mother across England. Boothby dwells within the old author’s home, follows his footsteps around the island and meets local people with memories of the man. By immersing himself within Gavin Maxwell’s world, he is able to let the obsession go. The novel is peppered with descriptions of Eilean Ban’s natural landscape, encounters with wild otters and conversations with locals. I would recommend this book for anyone with a fascination for an author or who is compelled by the thought of living on a remote Scottish Isle.