A seafaring tale, reminiscent of Patrick O’Brian, about a born sailor who tragically loses his connection to the sea.
Robert Radnor is in his 90s, a hermit who, because of a change in ownership, is about to be displaced from the seaside hut where he has lived for decades. This upheaval causes him to reflect upon his many years at sea, which he has documented by carving wooden heads of the men he served with on his last voyage, in 1949, aboard The Golden Delta. In frustration at the turn of events, he tosses some of the heads into the sea, where, unbeknownst to Radnor, they’re picked up and traded, gradually valued highly and becoming known as Orwell Heads. The long middle section details Radnor’s ill-fated last voyage, from its ominous beginnings when Radnor perceives a phantom dhow passing nearby and has the intuition that the sea he has always understood in an uncanny way is on the verge of turning on him, perhaps, as a woman would, understanding that he’s considering leaving her. Step by step, in rhythmic, slow-moving prose, British newcomer Austin describes a man losing his grip on reality, his judgment no longer trusted by captain or crew. In the end, he’s put under lock and key, visited in port by a naval doctor. Austin’s descriptions of the fickle lure and dangerous power of the ocean are poetic and knowing, and Radnor is less a character than a symbol of man in conflict with sea. Finally, when the postmistress enters his hut to deliver two letters that will decide his fate, she’s astonished to see the carvings of all the men aboard the Golden Delta. For Radnor, they’re as alive as his memories.
Too slow going for commercial success, but Austin’s maiden voyage may gain some momentum from its dramatic survivor’s description of a tidal wave destroying a ship, bringing to mind the recent tsunami disaster.