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Britain's greatest living author
on 31 March 2007
'Coasting' has to be considered one of the best books by a living British author. It is a travelogue describing Raban's single-handed voyage around Britain in an old restored sailing boat, that takes various digressions - just as his journey does - as he mulls over his childhood as the son of a Church of England priest and the current state of Britain under Mrs Thatcher at the time of the Falklands War.
The book is remarkable for its penetrating and highly perceptive insights into the character and state of the British nation. Raban is able to form a detached view of his country whilst out at sea, and quite rightly he finds there is more to criticize than praise. However, rather than taking the battering ram approach of his eccentric predecessors (whom he ironically describes in his story), he uses beautifully crafted language to describe the life of a single-handed sailor in awe of the power of the sea, with detailed almost lyrical descriptions of the characters and encounters he meets along the way. There are two passages that I am particulary fond of. One is of a rather hostile meeting with Paul Theroux at Brighton marina, himself in the midst of researching a similar book about Britain on foot, and a much friendlier one with Philip Larkin at Hull, a city that Raban knows well from his student days and working as a part-time minicab driver.
This is a writer at the very heights of his craft. Having become disillusioned with so much low-grade modern writing, it is a delight to come across an author who is on a par with some of the great writers of the past. Whereas 'A Passage to Juneau' and 'Hunting Mr Heartbreak' are similar in theme but more localized in their American context, I consider 'Coasting' his best novel because it so successfully reflects and intertwines Raban's perspective on his own life with that of the British nation.