A slowly paced debut novel in which the sights, smells and lore of the landscape of Norfolk, England, play at least as great a role as the characters who inhabit it.
Pip Langore, the first-person narrator, recounts three generations of life around the sea and marshland of eastern England. He starts with the conception of his mother under bizarre circumstances, for his grandfather was a German paratrooper (“Hans,” though called “Hands” by the locals) discovered buried neck-deep in mud in the tidal marshes. Pip’s grandmother, Goose, pulls this soldier out and takes care of him until the birth of their daughter Lil’ nine months later. Hands then literally sails away into the sunrise and is never heard from again. After Lil’ becomes a young woman, she is courted by two brothers, Shrimp and Kipper Langore. She marries Shrimp, who wants to leave his “sealife” behind, symbolized by his reversion to his given name, George. Pip, the union of this marriage, has fewer and lesser expectations than his Dickensian namesake. For many years he refuses to speak and instead inscribes his thoughts on a tablet. Only Elsie, the remote object of his affection (and avatar of Estella), succeeds in bringing out his deep need to articulate his inchoate emotional life aloud. Toward the end of the novel, Pip reviews the destruction (and occasionally self-destruction) of many of the people with whom his life has been entwined, “all of them living and losing their way on this thin strip of saltmarsh which can never be called land and never be called sea.” The characters exhibit a similar ambiguity and are never quite able to commit wholeheartedly to place, profession or each other.
Ultimately, Pip realizes that Goose has exerted the strongest influence in his life, a matriarch who “battl[es] the clouds,” preserves family stories and never gives in to “the temptation to give up.”