Wednesday 7 December 2011

Let Not The Waves of the Sea - Simon Stephenson

Jackie recently posed an interesting question about whether or not there had been any books published in 2011 which were destined to become modern classics.  I wasn't much help... because I've only read three books published in 2011 (which is two more than I initially thought) - two novels (The Tiny Wife and A Kind Man) and one brilliant work of non-fiction, which I'm going to write about today: Let Not The Waves of the Sea by Simon Stephenson.

Quite of few of you were moved by this article, which I linked to a few months ago.  It's by Simon Stephenson, about losing his brother in the 2004 tsunami, and acts as a very touching introduction to Let Not The Waves of the Sea.  It made me want to read Stephenson's book (which John Murray had sent me, and was stashed in a pile somewhere) mostly because so few books, fiction or non-fiction, centralise the fraternal relationship or pay respect to the bond between brothers.

Dominic Stephenson was 27 when he and his girlfriend Eileen were killed while staying on the island of Ko Phi Phi in Thailand.  I'm sure we all remember the images and videos which were shown around the world - so shocking and appalling an event, which killed nearly a quarter of a million people, is difficult to comprehend.  Stephenson notes in the afterword to Let Not The Waves of the Sea that two people died for every word that is in the book, which brings it home a little.  But this enormous tragedy was a million personal tragedies, and Stephenson's book is the result of just one of these.

This is not the sort of book I usually feature on Stuck-in-a-Book, where I am more likely to mention the casualties of the Second World War than the victims of a 21st century natural disaster.  But even if this sounds like something you would never choose, can I encourage you to read on - Let Not The Waves of the Sea is a truly spectacular book.  I am conscious of the need to write about it carefully and respectfully, and it feels almost offensive to make any sort of value judgement about so personal and painful a book.  But by publishing it, Stephenson obviously invites others to join him on his path - and Let Not The Waves of the Sea widens its scope beyond that of a grieving brother - or, rather, we see the widening path that leads the brother through grief.

Stephenson starts with the events leading of December and January 2004, as the news unfolds and the waiting game begins - his family had to wait some time for Dominic's body to be identified, as the quotation below explains, and it is a moving exploration of one stage of grief:

It seems impossible that my brother could have left in such a way, even more so that he might have done so without telling me, that I will never now exchange another word with the only soul that was built from the exact same pieces as mine.  It seems impossible, and so at a certain point I once again simply stop believing that he is dead.  In this new world of chaos it seems no more implausible than any other explanation, and each day that passes without a call to say his body has satisfied the identification requirements only reinforces this.  Stories are how I have been earning my living lately and it seems clear to me that fate is playing this one with a twist: the dental records did not match because of any problem with the nomenclature, but because they were being compared to somebody else's teeth; the body lying in the funeral home in Thailand is not Dominic's, but that of a thief who stole his wallet shortly before the water arrived.  Dominic is safely marooned on an island or lying in a hospital somewhere with his transient but utterly fixable amnesia.  Soon a passing ship will spot his signal fire.  Soon he will come to and recall everything with a start.  Soon his name will light up on my phone and I will answer it to hear a voice that asks, "Alright, Si?"

But the phone call that arrives in the middle of March is not this one that I have again started to expect.  A fingerprint on a glass the police officers took from the kitchen of their flat has proven a match and the criteria have been satisfied.  Dominic really is dead, and his body is to be flown home overnight.

Let Not The Waves of the Sea is, however, far from being simply a diary of those awful days.  The blurb notes that the book 'is something more than a book about what it means to lose a brother: it is a book about what it means to have one in the first place.'  The article I linked to at the top explores some of this aspect - Simon was 16 months younger than Dominic, and they seem to have always been close.  Even if tragedy had not darkened the Stephensons' lives, this book would be a beautiful paean to brotherhood and childhood - in amongst arrangements for funerals and travel, Simon relates anecdotes they shared, from his earliest days to school days to the time they spent together at university.  There are plenty of memoirs which relate romances, many which document parental or filial affections, but very few which show how important siblings can be.  I'm sure Simon and Dominic argued and fought, but - even if Simon laments never having spoken it aloud -  they never doubted their mutual love.

But Let Not The Waves of the Sea adds another dimension to these facets - Simon, understandably, wants to visit Ko Phi Phi.  In the end he stays there for months, and returns for several anniversaries of the event.  His book becomes also the documenting of his travels, getting to know the locals and forming the deep friendships which can exist only between those who have suffered the same pain.  Foremost amongst these is Ben, a Thai man who lost his wife and daughters, and deals with grief in a way entirely different from Simon.  Although (as you know) I don't usually read travel writing, Simon's journey was far more than geographical - and the things he does and learns on the island are engrossing - sad, but with that irony of good coming out of bad.  Still, some of his experiences continue to be unsettling in new ways - the everyday can never be quite everyday, in a place still recovering from the extraordinary.  Here, Simon sees a bone which has washed ashore:
It is down on the water's edge, nestled in seaweed and bleached by the sun, the tapering downstroke of a brilliant white exclamation mark.  I pick it up and turn it over in my hand: three inches by one half inch, S-curved along its long axis and gently bowed across its short one, it is a perfect match for the clavicle of a young child.

I tell myself that there are a hundred other creatures this bone could have come from, and yet when it comes to it find that I can name at most three: a dog, a cow, perhaps a goat, though in truth I have never seen either of the latter on Phi Phi, where even dogs are a rarity.  I run my finger along it, trying to think of reasons why it cannot be human, trying to recall my anatomy lectures from medical school, as if there were some fact that, if I only could remember it, would allow me to discard it.

I wish that I had not noticed it, wish I had not picked it up, wish that I could simply throw it back into the sea, but I cannot.  It might be nothing, but there is a chance that even such a single small bone could yield all the information that a family ever gets.  I wrap it in a tissue and put it in my pocket.

The book doesn't always make for the easiest reading.  I cried pretty much every time I picked it up - including when I was reading it on the bus, in a cafe, and in a quiet ten minutes at work.  Partly that's because my worst nightmare is something happening to my own brother - partly it's because Simon invites us to join him in his journey.  Horrible expression, much overused by reality TV programmes, but it is fitting - literally and figuratively, the reader goes on Simon's journey: around the world, through all the stages of grief, into his happy memories - and through two other medical crises he has to face along the way.  Note how I have unconsciously changed from calling the author 'Stephenson' to calling him 'Simon'?  That's the sort of closeness that develops, without ever feeling mawkish or as though the reader is intruding or rubber-necking.

And the title, Let Not The Waves of the Sea?  It comes from The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran, a sort of fable composed of essays (it seems) which was beloved by Dominic.  This passage provides the title, and were the words Simon read at his brother's funeral:
Let not the waves of the sea separate us now, and the years you have spent in our midst become a memory.
You have walked among us a spirit, and your shadow has been a light upon our faces.
Much have we loved you. But speechless was our love, and with veils has it been veiled.
Yet now it cries aloud unto you, and would stand revealed before you.
And ever has it been that love knows not its own depth until the hour of separation. 
It is often said that first-time authors put everything into their book - with novels, this is meant is a criticism.  Every idea is thrown in, to the detriment of the structure and unity required of fiction.  With non-fiction, with Let Not The Waves of the Sea, putting everything in is what makes Stephenson's book so special.  It is not a memoir, not a travelogue, not a work of philosophy - or, rather, it is all of these things.  Let Not The Waves of the Sea is a response to grief and the outworking of it - this book is as full and varied and complex as the life it commemorates, and I consider it a privilege to have been able to read it.


  1. Oh Simon, what a review. I don't know if excited is the right word but I now very much want to read this book. It sounds emotionally overwhelming but in the most compelling way.

  2. Wonderful review Simon - thank you. I was welling up reading your words, let alone the book itself.

  3. Lovely review. I've had this on my wish list since listening to it on Radio 4 (it was a Book on the Week back in the summer). To start with I wondered if it would prove too emotional, but it was so beautifully written, and so moving, it drew me in, bit by bit. Now I've read your review I want to read the book more than ever.

  4. Wow, it sounds powerful. Thanks for the insightful review.

  5. I was sent a copy of this book, but I'm scared to read it - I think it will just turn me into an emotional wreck. Even though your reivew highlights the emotion of this book you've actually made me a little less scared of it. It sounds as though it teaches the reader a lot. I might just give it a try next year, once Boxing Day is a reasonable distance away.

  6. This sounds like such a wonderful book - as was your review. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on it.

  7. Thanks for review simon I d read bit in papers when it first appeared I may get this as I like sound of it and for once I think mrs a might like it as well ,all the best stu

  8. Claire - I do hope you seek this one out - I couldn't say I enjoyed it, but I certainly valued reading it and found it completely compelling.

    Carol - thank you! Sounds like you would be like me, when reading the book, in floods... especially with boys yourself.

    Chris - thank you. I hadn't realised that it was Book of the Week - it would have been interesting to hear it read. It is beautifully written, isn't it? It would be awful if it weren't, as a reader, because you wouldn't feel you could criticise.

    Susan - thank you for your comment Susan :)

    Jackie - obviously it's sad, but it definitely doesn't wallow or play for effect - and, as you see, it's much more than being about death. Maybe try it in the spring!

    Dan - thanks very much!

    Stu - ah, one you can read together!


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