Review: Ken Barris
J.M. Coetzee is quoted on the cover: “An engagingly romantic, fast-paced tale of sailing-ship adventures of the myth-laden East African coast, with plenty of sex and action, plus a serious revisionist message regarding modern-day Somali piracy.” Agreed (partly), but is this nothing more than a good airport thriller?
The main character Paul Waterson is a scriptwriter doing research for a documentary along the Kenyan coast. And Justin Fox is an experienced travel writer and photographer, as well as a man deeply knowledgeable about (and in love with) sailing boats. The real romance in the novel is not the sex, which is formulaic at best and comical at worst. It lies more in the sense of place that Fox builds extremely well. He writes about Mombasa, Malindi and Lamu with the assurance of a traveller who knows the country, and he makes the beauty and vitality of place shine out. A further thread of this romance is his evocation of the history of the Swahili as a nautical culture, their trade links with the East, and their bitter experience of Portuguese imperialism. His treatment of this history is enriched by dreamlike interludes in which Paul encounters figures from the past, such as the slave Mariamu, or the aristocratic trader Ahmed Suleiman.
The core of this romance, though, is Fox’s treatment of the vessel that dominated Indian Ocean trade, namely the dhow and all its variants such as the ghanjah and the spectacular mtempe, a boat made without nails, in fact sewn together. This thread is well researched, and I found it fascinating. Fox cleverly builds these sailing craft into his narrative, folding what could otherwise be abstract information neatly into the action.
Paul’s encounter with Somali pirates unfortunately comes across as an afterthought, taking up a small part of the narrative. Nor is the “serious revisionist message” that Coetzee identifies particularly convincing. The message is that Somali piracy today is a strategic Islamist response to economic colonialism (foreign trawlers, for example, stripping Somalian fishing resources, and related incidents). In other words, a contemporary jihad, led by a pirate pointedly named Mohamed. I could possibly take this seriously if the argument (and Mohamed’s character) were developed with at least some complexity, or if the greed and brutality of piracy were not so lightly dismissed. There is a further lost opportunity, in that Paul shows indications of Stockholm syndrome, another seam that might have been mined to good effect. Instead, Fox brings it all to a rather abrupt happy ending, leaving these elements inadequately explored.
The short-windedness of the pirate zone, however, did not spoil this novel for me. The strengths of Whoever Fears the Sea overbalance its limitations and make it an enjoyable read. Treatment of place is authentic, the dhow-sailing episodes are absorbing, and Fox’s engagement with Indian Ocean history is refreshing.
- This review first appeared in the Cape Times in March 2014