Ahoy shipmates! As you may or may not recall, I set myself a nautical fiction reading challenge back in January. I’m aiming to read a bunch of fiction set on or near the sea, and to find nautical books that fulfil the following criteria:
- Female protagonist
- Set before 1500
- Diverse cast
- Written by Patrick O’Brian
- Set during WWII
- Animals (must be central to the plot)
- Romance (aka ships on ships)
Here’s what I’ve read so far:
A Fatal Crossing by Tom Hindle
This ticks off challenge no. 5 – mystery – in a very satisfying way. It’s a classic whodunnit in the vein of Agatha Christie, set on a transatlantic voyage in the 1920s. The plot unfolds in a perfectly measured way, tantalising the reader throughout the beginning and middle of the novel. Then you get towards the end, which is where the real magic happens.
As excellent as the plot is, I was less impressed with the characters. Timothy Birch is nuanced and sympathetic, but Inspector Temple just comes across as a one-note grump. He’s one of those characters who’s always growling, which is a pet peeve of mine. The more minor characters are pretty well-drawn, but it’s sometimes difficult to keep track of who’s who.
It’s not the most nautical of nautical novels, as the size of the ship means the action could be unfolding in a luxury hotel. Still, there’s something deliciously sinister about being stuck on a ship with a killer, surrounded by nothing but the icy ocean.
Das Boot by Lothar Günther Buchheim
I read this for challenge no. 7 – set during WWII – as it follows the crew of a German U-boat through storms, enemy attacks, and basically one disaster after another. It’s a book to sink your teeth into, with rich detail about everything from the workings of the U-boat to the clouds on the horizon.
To say that this book is slow-paced is both an understatement, and completely missing the point. It’s not an adventure story where incidents are covered in a few paragraphs or a couple of pages. It’s a story of endurance, where events often play out with agonising slowness. When the men are attacked by depth charges, you feel like you’re there with them, shakily praying for it to end.
It’s a little strange to feel this level of sympathy for literal Nazis, but a testament to the psychological depth of Buchheim’s writing. He presents a world of ordinary men (and a couple of extraordinary ones) doing terrible things and having terrible things done to them simply because it’s their job.
Frenchman’s Creek by Daphne du Maurier
A triple whammy! This book fulfils: challenge no. 1 – a female protagonist, challenge no. 3 – pirates, and challenge no. 10 – romance. And it’s not even a big fat novel, but a slim volume with brisk pacing.
I read Rebecca a few years ago, so I assumed that du Maurier wrote gothic psychological thrillers. It turns out our girl had range, and was equally capable of crafting a swashbuckling adventure-romance.
Frenchman’s Creek is very much an escapist novel, with the desire for freedom portrayed just as viscerally as the heightened emotions of first love. But bear in mind that this was published in 1941 and the protagonist is a mother of two young children. There’s always the sense that her escape out of a stifling society and into the arms of a pirate can’t last forever.
I now have five challenges left:
2. Set before 1500
4. Diverse cast
6. Written by Patrick O’Brian
9. Animals (must be central to the plot)
Do you have any recommendations for nautical fiction that would fulfil any of these challenges? And have you ever read A Fatal Crossing, Das Boot or Frenchman’s Creek? What did you think of them?