A marine scientist quits a rocky marriage to hang out with seals in this faltering debut from a British author.
They married young, in Scotland, a striking couple. Leo Kemp, an Australian, was making his mark at the university with his research on sea mammals; the Scottish Margot was a beautiful schoolteacher. Now, in 2008, 16 years later, Leo’s career has prospered but their marriage has frayed. They’ve been living for several years on Cape Cod, where Leo lectures at a prestigious institute. Margot has never forgiven her husband for taking their son Julian on a seal-watching trip which resulted in his accidental death. All that keeps them together is their teenage daughter Sam. On a field trip with his postgraduate students to record underwater conversations among seals, Leo is swept overboard by a freak wave. A strong swimmer, he makes it to a sandbank, but realizes he does not want to be rescued. For what? The institute has just dismissed him over an outspoken interview in a local paper (he was never a team player). Margot and Sam no longer have meaning for him; he would rather swim with seals by day, sleep in the dunes by night. MacManus is not writing a survivalist story, for Leo manages quite well on a diet of mussels, crabs and seaweed, drinking from freshwater ponds. Is this, then, more an existential drama, investigating misanthropy? No again. When Leo asks himself what he’s doing with the seals, he has no answer. What is plain is that the author is more comfortable writing about seals than humans. About seals, he is clear and authoritative; he holds our interest. His humans, though, are shopworn, talking in clichés. Margot, pleased to be rid of her mate, prepares to return to Scotland, then has an unconvincing change of heart. Leo will eventually be found, but his extraordinary time out will remain unilluminated.
An intriguing concept poorly executed.