Nicholas Shakespeare

(Jump down to read a review of Snowleg)

"Secrets of the Sea"

(Reviewed by Mary Whipple AUG 2, 2008)

“We’re too far out of reach here to be touched by any God or man-made laws, or even scientific ones…In Tasmania, everyone is left to be as idiotic as they please.”

Secrets of the Sea by Nicholas Shakespeare

Set on the remote southeast coast of Tasmania, the isolated island at the southernmost tip of Australia, Nicholas Shakespeare’s latest novel examines the hard-scrabble lives of Alex and Merridy Dove as they try to create satisfying lives, cope with traumatic childhood memories which have forever affected their sense of security, and ultimately decide that “We’d better start living. We’re dead an awfully long time.”

Wellington Point, the fictional town in which they live on Tasmania’s southeast coast, faces Oyster Bay, a battered shoreline open to ferocious gales coming from the nearest land mass to the south—Antarctica. Only the hardiest and most independent souls manage to wrest a living from the land or the sea around Wellington Point, but the beauty of the “undiscovered” coastline and the awe-full elements of nature that its inhabitants face daily provide satisfaction for those who manage to come to terms with life in the raw.

Alex and Merridy Dove have both faced tragedy as youngsters. Alex lost both of his parents when he was only eleven, after which he was sent to England to boarding school. Returning twelve years later to oversee the Tasmanian property his parents left him, he meets and falls in love with Merridy, whose much-adored brother vanished when he was seven and she was five. Though she does not love Alex when they are married, she believes that she will learn to love him, and they look forward to having a family and living on the farm, which Alex has decided to return to operation and which Merridy delights in making more attractive.

Shakespeare, who lives in Tasmania for four months a year (and in England for the other eight months), creates a vibrant picture of life at Wellington Point, and of the connections the inhabitants forge with each other and with the land and the sea. Moving back and forth in time, the novel provides the individual backgrounds of all the characters, their courtships and love affairs, their hopes for the future, and their personal interests. Alex’s father, for example, delighted in creating ships in bottles, a hobby that Alex continues. Merridy’s father was a poet who loved the work of Edwin Lear, teaching her to appreciate the magic of the imagination and the escape it offers. As Alex, the realist-farmer, and his wife, the believer in dreams, await the arrival of children who do not arrive, their lives and their marriage are tested.

The leisurely, domestic pace of the novel quickens with the arrival of Kish, a teenage orphan whom Alex and Merridy rescue from a ferocious storm at sea. Kish has been in trouble with the law in Australia, and like the others who have been working on the boat which has capsized, he is part of a program which aims to give troubled boys a chance to learn from their experiences on a three-month sail around the island. Merridy and Alex give Kish a place to stay temporarily, along with a job, each of them trying to fit Kish into their memories of the past and their dreams for the future. Ultimately, all three of them feel betrayed.

The novel, which has been rooted in the reality of the characters’ present and their memories of the past for about three quarters of its length, changes dramatically with the arrival of Kish, as various characters begin to experience illusions and, in some cases, (literally) to see ghosts of the past. The line between reality and fantasy blurs and is complicated by the characters’ failure to communicate honestly, so that they often misinterpret what they think they are seeing. The surges of the sea sometimes parallel the characters’ surges of passion, some of it unexpected and surprising to the reader, and the sea’s “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar” is sometimes matched by the characters’ separations, emotional and physical.

Ultimately, all the loose ends get tied up, but this is sometimes done on the basis of coincidence, and the gothic change from pure realism to a mixture of realism and fantasy may annoy some readers. The characters are sympathetically drawn, however, and the reader who loves intimate family sagas and depictions of unusual places will be captivated by this unusual and well-written novel.

  • Amazon readers rating: starsfrom 1 reviews
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(Reviewed by Mary Whipple OCT 12, 2004)

"[The Communist government of East Germany] was formed against fascists and extermination camps…I know this is hard to believe, but we felt we were in battle. We embraced life in the GDR as a true alternative to fascism and war crimes. But to keep our people safe we felt we had to know everything about them and to make this knowledge a respectable, responsible activity. And that's where we went wrong."

Snowleg by Nicholas Shakespeare

In one of the most elegantly written and carefully constructed love stories in recent memory, Nicholas Shakespeare tells the story of Peter Hithersay, who, on his sixteenth birthday, learns from his mother that "Daddy" is not his father. A concert singer who had once gone to Leipzig, East Germany, for a vocal competition, she had met and loved his biological father very briefly, only to see him arrested and taken away, never heard from again. Peter, a British boarding school student, becomes curious about Germany and Germans, accepting a summer job in Hamburg, where he tutors a German Olympic athlete in English but never crosses the border with East Germany. Upon graduation, he does, however, decide to spend his gap year in Germany, and applies for and is accepted to medical school in Hamburg, where he lives for the next six years.

Shortly before his exams during his third year of medical school, some of his friends, members of a traveling mime troupe, invite him to be their stage manager on a trip to Leipzig, an opportunity to visit the place where his unnamed father was arrested. Though he has been warned about the secret police, the constant spying on foreigners, and the dangers of going off on his own, Peter, nevertheless, falls passionately in love with a young East German, whose Icelandic nickname, "Snjolaug," he hears as "Snowleg." At the end of his four-day trip to Leipzig, however, he leaves her behind, and all his subsequent letters to her go unanswered. Though he has never learned her real name, she is the love of Peter's life, and he never gives up hope of finding her.

Peter's search for Snowleg, and secondarily, for his father, over the next twenty years, alternates with flashbacks and memories, as the relationship of Peter and Snowleg unfolds. Unable to form any other close attachments with women ("There was something barren about Peter's heart."), Peter has always settled for affairs, while studying, first, pediatrics, and later, gerontology and moving from Hamburg to Berlin, with occasional visits to England. When Frau Weschke, a 103-year-old patient, to whom he is especially close, dies in the nursing home where he works, Peter, now in his early forties, promises to deliver her effects to her granddaughter, Frau Metzel, in Leipzig. With Germany now reunified, he also hopes to obtain the old Stasi files on his mother and learn the name and fate of his father.

The role of the East German secret police, the conditions which led to citizens reporting on other citizens, and the conflicts between the original ideal of communism with its later cynical implementation by sadistic bureaucrats are carefully delineated. These provide a perspective that elevates this novel above the typical love story and offer fresh insights into the action in Leipzig. Two secret police officers, Uwe and Hesse, whom we meet in the prologue and later at the end of the novel, reveal the personal, emotional costs of being part of the Communist bureaucracy, where it is often necessary to act against one's own instincts. As the story of Snowleg and her family evolves in Leipzig, the reader also sees how all aspects of the family and its life are interwoven, with all family members paying for the actions of individual family members.

The vibrancy of Shakespeare's prose makes every page of this story a delight to read. Filled with irony and, often, humor, the dialogue comes alive. When Peter and the mime troupe meet their landlady in Leipzig, for example, she recognizes that Peter is not originally from Germany and asks where he is from. "Ah, England," she says, and shows him a postcard she once received from nearby Winnipeg. Later, when Peter thanks her for a delicious meal, she mishears and tells him that her teeth were made in Hungary.

Unforgettable descriptions, especially of the darkness, the cold, and the soot in Leipzig, often reveal feelings as well as convey information. Of the soot, Shakespeare notes, "There were slashes of it in the sky like something crumbled into water and even the pigeons clustered along the aerials seemed coated with it." The façades of houses are described as "the gray color of anchovy paste," and "dead-colored in the snow as though fun had been ripped from them." When a song plays on the radio in Leipzig, for Peter "the song had red eyes and ran furtively across his mind…It was a rat dressed up as a promise." Similarly effective comments on the action also abound. A young patient's death creates in Peter, "Remorse. The bird that never settles."

Repeating motifs—a van with a fish painted on it, a dying deer, the story of Sir Bedevere, a fur coat, and the bones of a muskrat—echo throughout the novel and connect scenes symbolically. On one occasion, when Peter has denied help to someone who needs it, he thinks back to Sir Bedevere, a character he and his sister used to admire, and hears "the receding gallop of hoofs, of the visored figure."

Like most romances, the story relies to some extent on coincidence and fortuitous accident, but Shakespeare's writing is so strong and the story is so exciting that even the most jaded reader will willingly accept the implausibilities. With an exciting and emotional story, unique imagery and observations, a well drawn though imperfect main character, and with every detail contributing to the story's development, this novel is a pleasure to read on all counts. In the UK, where the book has been out since January, the judging panel for the Man Booker Prize selected this novel for its longlist for best book of the year.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 5 reviews

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About the Author:

Nicholas ShakespeareNicholas Shakespeare was born in Worcester, England in 1957. He spent his childhood in the Far East and in South America where his father worked as a diplomat. After graduating from Cambridge University he worked as a journalist and was literary editor of both the Daily and Sunday Telegraph newspapers between 1988 and 1991. The Vision of Elena Silves won both the Somerset Maugham Award and a Betty Trask Award and The Dancer Upstairs won the American Library Association Award in 1997. After The Higher Flyer Shakespeare was named as one of Granta magazine's twenty "Best of Young British Novelists." About Us | Subscribe | Review Team | History | ©1998-2014