|THE SEA ON FIRE
Kim is a man in his mid-thirties who has spent the vast majority of the latter half of his life travelling the world and diving some of its most beautiful spots. Nowadays he is living in Brixton with his wife and three daughters, the call of the sea a constant background noise. When his friend and long-time diving partner Garland Rain turns up and offers him a three-week job as a dive guide in the Red Sea, Kim jumps at the chance and, despite his wife’s disapproval, heads to Egypt and the freedom of the sea. Their boat, the Shang-Tu, belongs to a man named Teddy King, a small-time crook who thrives on cruelty, violence and drugs. It doesn’t take long for the party to start, and Kim quickly finds himself drawn in, much to the disgust of his friend. As the trip progresses, it soon becomes clear that the people on the boat have no intention of following rules and procedures, so it’s no great surprise when one of the divers disappears.
Told from the first-person perspective of Kim, The Sea on Fire starts slow and, with only a handful of exceptions, remains slow throughout. For perhaps the first third of the novel, it’s difficult to treat these characters as fictional, as Cunnell introduces us to Kim and Garland and the lifestyle they have chosen for themselves. For this first section, it’s a book about diving written by a man with a deep love of the subject and it reads like an autobiographical account of a young man in love with life, with the sea and with the art and science of diving. The reader only really becomes aware that this is a piece of fiction when the boat journey starts and partying commences. From that point onwards it is clear to everyone, except our narrator, that things can only go horribly wrong, and from around the halfway mark, The Sea on Fire is as suspenseful as any thriller, despite the slow pace.
For the most part, the novel is an examination of the end of freedom that usually comes with the responsibility of parenthood, the forced settling down and, for most, the end of many things young people take for granted – the freedom to travel, to have dangerous hobbies, to not need to work simply to pay bills. It’s clear from the outset that Kim feels this deeply, and his life in Brixton with a wife and three children leaves him feeling claustrophobic, pining for the open sea where he feels he belongs, and the sense of freedom he feels while submerged in the water. It’s no real surprise, then, that he falls for the party atmosphere on the boat, the abundance of alcohol and drugs, and the presence of the young and willing woman with whom he spends his nights; it’s a return to his natural state, to the person he believes he has never quite stopped being. There are, of course, consequences – the disappearing diver and the stain it is likely to leave on his and his partner’s reputations is the least of these; there are greater consequences on his return to England, and his internal struggle makes this a compelling read. At first, Kim seems a strange character to tell the story, but he has, without doubt, the most interesting story to tell, and the only story likely to appeal to non-divers.
Cunnell has managed to squeeze plenty into a book barely three-hundred pages in length: Kim’s internal struggle and his rapid descent into chaos; the disappearance of the diver and the aftermath which, despite my original statement that The Sea on Fire is a slow book, still manages to pack a considerable punch and forms the central plot around which the rest of the novel is built; there is also a message about the conservation of the world’s reefs, the damage that is done every day by careless divers and the consequences this will have for the reefs, the wildlife that relies on them, right up the food chain to the people causing the damage in the first place. It’s a unique and very interesting novel (and I should probably mention the fact that I am coming at this as someone who has had no prior interest in diving) and it is clear that, in some ways, parts of it are autobiographical, in that Kim and the the author share the same passion for the sea and the ecosystem it supports.
The Sea on Fire is a bit of a departure from my normal reading preferences. It’s a slow novel that builds towards a suspenseful climax. It is probably best described as a “literary thriller”, but that does serious injustice to the vast bulk of the book, which is a story about divers and their craft. Cunnell manages to keep it interesting throughout and, despite the slow pace of the story, it is a quick and entertaining read, even with the sometimes over-technical discussions. Cunnell has done an excellent job of bringing his characters and the Red Sea to life and leaving the reader with an almost cinematic view of this beautiful part of the world. It’s a surprising little gem, and won’t disappoint.