Jackie recently posed an interesting question about whether or not there had been any books published in 2011 which were destined to become modern classics. I wasn’t much help… because I’ve only read three books published in 2011 (which is two more than I initially thought) – two novels (The Tiny Wife and A Kind Man) and one brilliant work of non-fiction, which I’m going to write about today: Let Not The Waves of the Sea by Simon Stephenson.
Quite of few of you were moved by this article, which I linked to a few months ago. It’s by Simon Stephenson, about losing his brother in the 2004 tsunami, and acts as a very touching introduction to Let Not The Waves of the Sea. It made me want to read Stephenson’s book (which John Murray had sent me, and was stashed in a pile somewhere) mostly because so few books, fiction or non-fiction, centralise the fraternal relationship or pay respect to the bond between brothers.
Dominic Stephenson was 27 when he and his girlfriend Eileen were killed while staying on the island of Ko Phi Phi in Thailand. I’m sure we all remember the images and videos which were shown around the world – so shocking and appalling an event, which killed nearly a quarter of a million people, is difficult to comprehend. Stephenson notes in the afterword to Let Not The Waves of the Sea that two people died for every word that is in the book, which brings it home a little. But this enormous tragedy was a million personal tragedies, and Stephenson’s book is the result of just one of these.
This is not the sort of book I usually feature on Stuck-in-a-Book, where I am more likely to mention the casualties of the Second World War than the victims of a 21st century natural disaster. But even if this sounds like something you would never choose, can I encourage you to read on – Let Not The Waves of the Sea is a truly spectacular book. I am conscious of the need to write about it carefully and respectfully, and it feels almost offensive to make any sort of value judgement about so personal and painful a book. But by publishing it, Stephenson obviously invites others to join him on his path – and Let Not The Waves of the Sea widens its scope beyond that of a grieving brother – or, rather, we see the widening path that leads the brother through grief.
Stephenson starts with the events leading of December and January 2004, as the news unfolds and the waiting game begins – his family had to wait some time for Dominic’s body to be identified, as the quotation below explains, and it is a moving exploration of one stage of grief:
Let Not The Waves of the Sea is, however, far from being simply a diary of those awful days. The blurb notes that the book ‘is something more than a book about what it means to lose a brother: it is a book about what it means to have one in the first place.’ The article I linked to at the top explores some of this aspect – Simon was 16 months younger than Dominic, and they seem to have always been close. Even if tragedy had not darkened the Stephensons’ lives, this book would be a beautiful paean to brotherhood and childhood – in amongst arrangements for funerals and travel, Simon relates anecdotes they shared, from his earliest days to school days to the time they spent together at university. There are plenty of memoirs which relate romances, many which document parental or filial affections, but very few which show how important siblings can be. I’m sure Simon and Dominic argued and fought, but – even if Simon laments never having spoken it aloud – they never doubted their mutual love.
But Let Not The Waves of the Sea adds another dimension to these facets – Simon, understandably, wants to visit Ko Phi Phi. In the end he stays there for months, and returns for several anniversaries of the event. His book becomes also the documenting of his travels, getting to know the locals and forming the deep friendships which can exist only between those who have suffered the same pain. Foremost amongst these is Ben, a Thai man who lost his wife and daughters, and deals with grief in a way entirely different from Simon. Although (as you know) I don’t usually read travel writing, Simon’s journey was far more than geographical – and the things he does and learns on the island are engrossing – sad, but with that irony of good coming out of bad. Still, some of his experiences continue to be unsettling in new ways – the everyday can never be quite everyday, in a place still recovering from the extraordinary. Here, Simon sees a bone which has washed ashore:
The book doesn’t always make for the easiest reading. I cried pretty much every time I picked it up – including when I was reading it on the bus, in a cafe, and in a quiet ten minutes at work. Partly that’s because my worst nightmare is something happening to my own brother – partly it’s because Simon invites us to join him in his journey. Horrible expression, much overused by reality TV programmes, but it is fitting – literally and figuratively, the reader goes on Simon’s journey: around the world, through all the stages of grief, into his happy memories – and through two other medical crises he has to face along the way. Note how I have unconsciously changed from calling the author ‘Stephenson’ to calling him ‘Simon’? That’s the sort of closeness that develops, without ever feeling mawkish or as though the reader is intruding or rubber-necking.
And the title, Let Not The Waves of the Sea? It comes from The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran, a sort of fable composed of essays (it seems) which was beloved by Dominic. This passage provides the title, and were the words Simon read at his brother’s funeral:
Let not the waves of the sea separate us now, and the years you have spent in our midst become a memory.
You have walked among us a spirit, and your shadow has been a light upon our faces.
Much have we loved you. But speechless was our love, and with veils has it been veiled.
Yet now it cries aloud unto you, and would stand revealed before you.
And ever has it been that love knows not its own depth until the hour of separation.
It is often said that first-time authors put everything into their book – with novels, this is meant is a criticism. Every idea is thrown in, to the detriment of the structure and unity required of fiction. With non-fiction, with Let Not The Waves of the Sea, putting everything in is what makes Stephenson’s book so special. It is not a memoir, not a travelogue, not a work of philosophy – or, rather, it is all of these things. Let Not The Waves of the Sea is a response to grief and the outworking of it – this book is as full and varied and complex as the life it commemorates, and I consider it a privilege to have been able to read it.