The Shoreline and the Sea by John Porter
I come to this novel from a position of ignorance. I picked it because I LOVED the cover. And the first page had me intrigued. More than that I was all at sea. I feel I should explain that at the outset. I have always wanted to like Hemingway. I know I should like ‘The Old Man and the Sea’ but I just don’t ‘get’ it, however many times I try to read it. The Shoreline and the Sea is everything I have always hoped Hemingway would be. And more. There is a strong element of magic realism in this story – again I have always wanted to ‘like’ Marquez but I’ve never quite got my head round him or magic realism in general. Maybe Porter isn’t even trying to do the same things as either Hemingway or Marquez, but personally, I felt this novel was a more accessible version of these two authors and their ‘styles.’ Those with greater insight and experience may disagree. I can only write from my position.
In wondering how Porter reaches the places in me that Hemingway and Marquez failed to do, I came to the conclusion that it’s the familiarity of his realistic description. The novel is set in a village by the sea, (and even though I’ve never been to an Italian coastal village , it’s very reminiscent of Greek island living which I have a fair experience of). The detailed description of food and nature and plants and textures and sounds and sights is achingly beautiful and minutely perfectly observed.
The interesting thing is that the close observation only reinforces the isolation and loneliness of Walker, the central protagonist, who is a photographer ‘stuck’ in this village following the mysterious disappearance of his girlfriend Rachel. He encounters an old man Nonno who, it seems, holds strange powers over everyone. Nonno identifies Walker early on as: ‘Crazy photo man. You look at the world, you don’t be in it.’ And this is certainly proven to be true. The writer cleverly manages to ‘connect’ character with reader because as a reader, throughout, as a result of the ‘strangeness’ of the happenings and the style of the narrative, you are also a distanced observer trying to make sense of the world of the story. It is captivating in its strangeness and beauty. Always mysterious, always challenging but never frustrating. Instead it has a captivating charm which lures you into the story and pulls you around in it like the tides of the lake on which the village is set. Sometimes stormy, sometimes calm, always beautiful and with a hint of danger.
We are told of Walker that ‘He had to take pictures, it was the only thing that made real sense of his life.’ Throughout, Walker struggles with nature around him and with his own nature. Even though he recognises that ‘what tied you was a kind of freedom’ he is always one step removed from both his surroundings and his own inner self.
In Walker’s physical and psychological inability to ‘leave’ the village I found myself referencing the Sergio Leone classic movies which form ‘The Man with No Name’ trilogy. Maybe this is all I needed to make ‘sense’ of the situation where Hemingway and Marquez failed to connect. It certainly attests to the symbiosis of relationship between reader and writer which needs to exist before one can understand something outside one’s general experience.
As Walker is pulled into the tragedies and loves of the village and the power of Nonno, he seems to become more integrated, but really he only changes perspective and gains something more of an insight into his own identity. ‘Sometimes the lake felt more like a state of mind than a geographical location.’ And the same happens with the reader.
One isn’t supposed to judge books by their cover but I was drawn initially exactly by the simplicity of the cover and it works beautifully to counter the depth of the narrative; both charm and captivate and challenge one’s preconceptions and expectations. Letting yourself go into the story is like diving into that Italian lake. The imagery and symbolism and beauty of the words washes over you and infuses into your being.
Suffice it to say that nothing is what it seems in life as in the story, and Nonno’s refrain that there are ‘no accidents’ in life gives a deep focus through the mysterious happenings of this wonderful narrative. Looking for a resolution in such a story is as pointless as wishing for a ‘happy’ ending. This is a great example of a story where the destination is in the journey and I for one felt privileged to have travelled in the world of Walker and the mind and writing of Porter for a short time. I find it remarkable that this is a debut novel. This is a rare and unique writing talent.