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3.0 out of 5 stars RB's Review of 'The Sea Lady', 28 Nov. 2013
This review is from: The Sea Lady (Paperback)
The Sea Lady - Margaret Drabble

The actual plot is simple to the point of banality: boy (Humphrey) meets girl (Ailsa); they part but meet again years later when in their twenties, have a passionate affair that peters out through another parting and because of differences that are unconvincingly and unclearly hinted at; more decades pass and they meet again, each having had a child by different partners.

The thread that keeps this novel going (just) is a rather mundane one : will the two main protagonists meet again - and live `happily ever after' one is tempted to say. Well they do meet again but the meeting has lost all the intensity of their first encounters as children, though it is more realistically presented than the rather over-played middle section of their sexual exploits as twenty-somethings. And `happily ever after' would be too corny. So Margaret Drabble is forced to fall back on the rather muted and unexciting interchanges between Ailsa and Humphrey at the new university that happens to stand near their old childhood holiday haunts in the northeast of England. And she smothers their renewed acquaitanceship (it is now little more than that) by introducing an entirely gratuitous character met earlier only in passing, the singer, Dame Mary, and the other childhood character Sandy Clegg who suddenly re-emerges without creating any frisson or development within the trio's relationships but is rather tacked on.

Arguably this is a more realistic way of presenting the renewal of dead or dormant loves and it seems to be the point that Drabble is making - emotion recollected in old age if not tranquillity. We learn that they may meet in a restaurant known in their years of passion - but the idea is again a muted one. The ending is also much encumbered by the rather irritating intrusion of the `Public Orator'. This strange creation seems to float above the narrative like a Greek chorus or some puppet master a la Thackeray without really lending any penetrating comment, if such had been needed. Moreover he seems at times to be conflated with Sandy Clegg, though it is hard to determine if this is really so.

The novel's chief good quality for me was its evocation of the childhood holidays in Finsterness and Ornemouth and the intensity of the relationships between Sandy Clegg and Humphrey Clark, as (roughly) twelve-year-olds. Ailsa and her (rather unpleasant) brother, Tommy enter the lives of the pair a little later . It was at the seaside village of Finsterness that Humphrey developed his interest in marine life.

(This aspect of the novel forms a thematic device: Ailsa is the `sea lady' though it is odd that her interest in this subject is only peripheral whereas it is central to Humphrey's life and career).

The first presentation scene in chapter one, like the last in the final chapter is like a tableau with much description but little action or genuine tension. Then there is the imagery of the sea and marine life which seems to revolve largely round the idea of the fluidity of sex change: are we meant to see a sort of parallel between the nature of sex change in fish to the loss of distinctiveness between the sexes in human beings? And if so, what point follows from this?

The story encompasses much technical detail about marine life and is partly a traversal of the changing mores and attitudes of English life over the period of post war Britain, sixties Britain and later. And it includes reportage (rather than presentation, except Ailsa's nightclub scene and the love-making in `the Room') of the less intense aspects of the social and academic careers of Ailsa and Humphrey. Such a vast map has necessarily to be large scale and this is its main problem for me: it is a novel of `saying' rather than `showing'. Except for the early chapters - Ailsa's presentation evening in the first chapter and the ones covering Humphrey's two holidays plus the last two or three chapters covering the Ornemouth presentations, the novel has few intense moments.

RB November 28th 2013
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Location: Dawlish, Devon

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