REVIEW by Jane MacNamee

NWR Issue r35

No Far Shore: Charting Unknown Waters

by Anne-Marie Fyfe

‘So, what was it actually like,’ asks Anne-Marie Fyfe, ‘growing up on the edge of something vast and exciting, on the edge of both calm and danger?’ Born to ‘the beat of waves’ in Cushendall on the rugged Antrim coast of Northern Ireland, she was drawn to the sea’s edge like a sandpiper, from the very beginning. As an adult, she returns to it year after year, and calls on it frequently, a ‘repeated motif’, as the inspiration for her poetry, research, and writing workshops. Caught up in her obsession for as long as she can remember, she decides that now is the time ‘to confront whatever it is that has some of us constantly looking out to islands, or far horizons, and wondering.’

In this travel memoir, she sets out on a coastal odyssey, looking for some ‘edge-of-the-depths understanding’, weaving her personal family story together with the histories of other coastal dwellers and migrants. She explores the shorelines, islands and promontories of Britain, and crosses the ocean to the Atlantic’s western edge, from Cape Cod, to Martha’s Vineyard and further along the north-eastern coast of North America, on to Nova Scotia. It’s a compelling project, made more enticing by her insistence that she will undertake the quest without a map. Whilst she is a proclaimed map enthusiast, this journey, she tells us, will have none of that cartographic pinpointing. With a nod to Graham Greene, she explains, ‘the heart of the matter is that matters of the heart, of the emotions, are invariably a journey without maps.’

As fluid as its subject, No Far Shore takes ‘no settled form’ but hovers along edges and ‘continually changing margins’, dipping in and out from prose to poetry, past to present, blending myth, fact and fiction. It spans centuries across continents within a single chapter, then hones in with skilled precision on touching details from her childhood, like a summer at the shoreline with her family: ‘fish-scales clustering like my brother’s stamp-hinges’. The shifting nature of the journey also brings Fyfe unexpected and welcome connections in some places, and incongruity elsewhere. There are, for example, the odd pink and lime-green macaroons put out as refreshments for visitors alongside the displays of ‘leviathan’ whale skeletons and vast blubber vats in Nantucket’s whaling museum, Massachusetts. And at the beach-head nearby, she spots her old neighbor, John Finlay’s, fishing hut, at least her mind would have it there: the same shack from back home in Antrim, where he would sleep at night before setting out across the bay, ‘all the old magic still there, still here’. Most poignant are the seemingly small connections, like suddenly remembering that the name of her mother’s nursing home towards the end of her life, shared its name with her parents’ first ‘newly-wed’ home, Glendun.

This might be a mapless voyage, but it is not without expert guides in her travel kit: these are the literary figures who fired her imagination as a child, the poets and writers whose lives and works resonate with her as an adult, all of them touched by the hypnotic and unpredictable powers of the sea. Their presence enriches the voyage in illuminating references, from Herman Melville to Robert Louis Stevenson, Emily Dickinson, Joseph Conrad, Virginia Woolf and Elizabeth Bishop,‘ ‘the’ poet of the Canadian Maritimes’, to name a few.

Recognising ‘missing mothers’ as a persistent theme on her quest, Fyfe finds a strong affinity with Elizabeth Bishop and Woolf (particularly in To the Lighthouse’) in their shared experiences of the death and absence of parents at a young age. From Woolf, she comes to understand that gazing out is less about lighthouses and horizons and more about ‘loss and irretrievability’. She follows the trail of Bishop even closer, staying in the house in Great Village, Nova Scotia, where Bishop spent her early years with her maternal grandparents, and would have been surrounded by descendants of migrants from Scotland and the North of Ireland. She offers thanks for Bishop’s unique understanding of the value of ‘aloneness’ and expression of it as the mind finding ‘its Sea’. It is not the bleak loneliness Fyfe encounters on revisiting Achill Island in County Mayo, or in her poem, ‘A Northern Litany’, but a celebration of solitude she echoes, discovering a deeper self again ‘whose heart quickens at the sound of a kittiwake’s cry’.

Is it this ‘aloneness’ that holds the answers to Fyfe’s questions? At the end of her voyage, she finds not answers, but some sort of settlement. There is heartfelt optimism in identifying her constant looking out, as a state of being, rather than simply longing for solace or to regain a lost past. She acknowledges that she, like others, simply needs a place to gaze out beyond the busy distractions and limitations of the familiar and the everyday, to find herself ‘endlessly, and not discontentedly, all at sea’.

Jane MacNamee is a nature, travel and food writer living in Aberystwyth.


previous review: In Passing
next review: Real Preseli


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