Saturday, 29 September 2012

At Sea ~ Laurie Graham

Is this the new Agatha Christie without the body in the library?  No, it certainly is not. Yet, this book will keep you guessing and longing for high tea in the afternoon.
'At Sea', by Laurie Graham, is a novel about appearances, set on-board a cruise ship where people can easily adopt a new identity and live out their fantasies for a few weeks at least, before returning to normality on shore.
The story is narrated by the long-nosed, long-suffering Lady Enid Finch, who plays the neglected wife of Professor Bernard Finch, the ship's history lecturer (glorified guide) whose snobbery and egotism make him easily the most detested man on-board.  He is completely absorbed with his own image and status, sulking over his below-par accommodation and his having been denied a seat at the captain's dinner table.  In fact, he is so obsessed with appearing superior to all the other passengers, that it soon becomes clear that he is not who he claims to be.  When he is confronted by a fellow passenger and  boyhood friend, Enid soon realises that the man she married is not who he claimed to be, but is in fact Mr Willy Fink, a barely educated American from dubious parentage.  And what an appropriate name for the camelion-like Bernard, Fink sounding so much like fake.

But Bernard (or Willy) is not the only character who is not as they seem.  Lady Enid, we are told is actually not entitled to her title either, owing to second marriage and new heir.  To learn such untruths about our beloved narrator is quite unsettling and in keeping with the ever-shifting terrain of a stormy sea.  As the plot unfolds, more twists are revealed until we finally realise that nothing in this book is what it appears to be.  Interesting, it is only the loud Americans, so hated by Bernard for their being so 'American' in the first place, that are unchanging and steadfast.  They are what they appear to be.  Perhaps Graham is commenting on British society and how, like the effervescent Mrs Bucket, so much energy is spent in keeping up appearances, that life becomes nothing but boring show.  

Yet the theme of appearances goes still deeper in this text, infiltrating the very tone of the book.  For the first chapter or two I thought the book was set in the early part of the twentieth century and I kept expecting Miss Marple or Poirot to pop out from behind a cabin door.  How shocking then to hear a character refer to their mobile phone, or a reference to the year 2002!  Graham clearly sets out to make the book 'appear' to be set in pre-war Europe, but again is playing with our preconceptions, just like Bernard and Enid do.  In this way, the book harps back to an era long gone, when sea travel was a necessity, not a choice, which, in a way, all sea cruises do.

The book further reminds me of Agatha Christie because it contains a mystery, revolving around not the 'appearance', but the dis-appearance of an important character.  I cannot elaborate further for fear of spoiling the book, but the fact remains that the author has created a book which operates on may different levels.  Perhaps it is because of this interlacing of plot and style that I did not become very attached to any of the ship's passengers.  The all seemed a little shallow by the end and even Enid showed herself to be as unknowable as the rest.  Of course it is wonderfully enjoyable to see her abandon her grey wolly cardy for an electric blue dress, but she left me a little cold somehow.
Still, this is a very witty, enjoyable book that will keep you entertained to the end and rushing to read a little Agatha Christie and boil kettles, for some unknown reason.

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