A man reckons with nature and memory after being struck by lightning at sea.
This brief novel, practically a prose poem, by the Welsh novelist Jones (The Long Dry, 2017, etc.) is of a piece with his other fiction, which emphasizes the perils of life uncomfortably close to the elements. Here, an unnamed man sets out in his kayak to perform two tasks: catching fish and scattering his late father’s ashes. After the bolt strikes, he’s briefly paralyzed from the waist up and unconscious, then adrift far from shore. What ensues is his effort to get back home, as Jones lays out the details of emergency seamanship and the ravages of dehydration and exposure in a kind of slow-motion rhythm. (“You will move only a little and you must not race. Just proceed. That’s all it is about.”) There are moments of tension, such as a near spotting by a child on a beach, but most often Jones’ camera is zoomed in on the man in isolation, where the drama involves attempting to paddle the kayak forward with a frying pan using one functioning arm and dealing with hallucinations of the voices of a child and his father. The man's thoughts scatter, thinking at once of survival and of his pregnant wife back home. (“He wanted to make sure she knew how to reset the pilot light on the boiler.”) Jones is a highly talented writer about nature, but here he strives to connect two conflicting rhetorical modes—straightforward survival tale and elegiac riff on loss and mortality—into one overly confining space. Focusing so much on his hero getting on with the simple business of staying alive gives his other themes short shrift.
It’d be cruel to wish Jones punished his castaway further, but his tale cries out for a broader canvas.