REVIEW by Alan Bilton

NWR Issue 103

The Known and Unknown Sea

by Paul Cooper

Alan Bilton’s dark, surreal and disturbing The Known & Unknown Sea begins as innocuously as a novel can. In a foggy Welsh seaside town, a number of mysterious boat tickets arrive for the townspeople, inviting them for a free trip across the bay to the ‘other side’. Where did the tickets come from? Why have only some people received them? And how can a ship even dock in their sleepy little bay?

These are the questions asked over and over as the days tick down to the morning of departure. But as the mysterious boat sets sail wreathed in fog and swarming birds, filled with medical paraphernalia and shadowy corridors, we realise that something much darker is at hand.

The novel is narrated by Alex, a simple-minded child who loves to repeat the phrases he hears being traded by the grown-ups. Alex’s three grandmothers, for instance, ‘“clucked like chickens near the pot” (Dad)’, or ‘felt “rougher than a crow’s tongue” (Auntie Gwyn)’. Each phrase is lovingly attributed like this so that at times the novel seems to be narrated by an entire choir of narrators, the whole family chiming in as part of a disorderly symphony.

Alex’s narration is patched with uncertainty and self-correction. Any mention of a strange multi-coloured snow that begins to fall towards the end of the novel is followed immediately by ‘(snow?)’. Any mention of what Alex calls ‘the boat’ is immediately followed by ‘(ship!)’. There’s a strange rhythm to it all that draws you in and pleases you with recurring refrains.

There are some beautiful turns of phrase, too: ‘the room wobbled like it was being cooked in a frying pan’, for instance. Or Alex’s description of the white cliffs of the ‘other side’: ‘the shore looked like an enormous eye-lid, with deep black shadows for lashes.’ There’s a tension sometimes between Alex’s naivety and his poetic rendering of the world, but Bilton pulls it off with a confidence that holds the book together well.

As the story draws on, sense becomes increasingly unravelled. Readers who thought they had a handle on what was going on will start to doubt the story they’re reading. Settings and character become blurred. Time stretches out like putty, then snaps together all at once.

As the coy references to medical supplies like syringes and pills are brought in, and the families that have completed their journey are weighed, measured and corralled into barrack-like accommodation, and as more and more of them begin to disappear, the reader begins to suspect that something is very much amiss in the world Alex inhabits. Is this a mass deportation? A concentration camp? A psychiatric ward?

There were many points in the novel where I doubted Bilton’s ability to end the story satisfactorily. I began to suspect that The Known & Unknown Sea was a Rubix cube that would remain scrambled, that sense would never be restored. That’s why the twist, when it came, was such a relief. By the end, the book became such a page-turner that I was rapt enough to miss my stop on the train while reading it. However, it took a little too long for that stage to come. Readers who want strong, insistent narratives in their books won’t find one here. They’ll find much more that is unknown than known for most of the book. But rest assured: answers do come.

For my taste, The Known & Unknown Sea spends too long detached from sense, and expends too much of its energies on mystery. It hinges so critically on the final twist that much of the book is like swimming through the spectral fog that wraps so many of its scenes. While the pay-off is worth the wait, it’s not difficult to imagine the reader who would get impatient and give up halfway through.

Still, a number of Bilton’s images will haunt me long after I turned the final page. One is where Alex stumbles upon a half-built and empty facsimile of his home town, empty of people and built from children’s craft materials. Everything is uncannily same-but-different: ‘The worst houses were those made of paper-maché and cardboard, but even the brick ones looked hastily cobbled together, as if haphazardly assembled in the dark.’

Everywhere, trees with fingers for branches grope at the sky, and the world is full of only mesh fences, enormous craters, locked doors and that bizarre multi-coloured snow. Still, moments of lucid beauty are described perfectly, like ‘the night of a million stars’, when Alex sees the sky through the fog for the first time:

Ah, how amazing it was! The stars in the heavens and our ship among them – I gazed up at the dribbles and spurts and drank it all in… there were as many stars in the sea as up above me, and no straight line between the two.

Moments like this redeem the foggy vagueness of the rest of the book. Bilton is a talented writer, and this is certainly a novel to get your hands on if you have a taste for the dark, the mysterious, and the weird.

[Paul Cooper] is a novelist, journalist and traveller from Cardiff. He studied creative writing at the UEA, and is obsessed with languages and old maps. Follow Paul on Twitter @PaulMMCooper

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previous review: Spool by Robert Cole
next review: Florilingua


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