Changing with the tide: the best water books

Changing with the tide: the best water books

Tapping the Source (1984) and The Dogs of Winter (1997) by Kem Nunn

Not just the two finest novels about surfing ever written, but two of the best books you’ve never read. In Tapping the Source, 17-year-old Ike Tucker travels from the desert to Huntington Beach, California, to look for his missing sister and the men who may have killed her. With unforeseen life and death consequences, Ike is seduced by this new world of girls, sunshine, perfect waves and endless parties presided over by the charismatic and mysterious surfer, Hound Adams.

The Dogs of Winter is Nunn’s masterpiece, and has at its centre the story of two surfing heroes whose best days are long gone – legendary big wave rider Drew Harmon, and down and out photographer Jack Fletcher. Together they embark on a quest to surf and photograph the huge waves of Heart Attacks – California’s last secret, legendary surfing site.

The special appeal of Nunn’s writing is the combination of unmatched lyricism and authenticity with which he writes about the marginal, coastal worlds he creates -  and the elective outcasts, dropouts and runaways who live there – and the truthful, compassionate way he confronts the consequences of human failure and the universal possibility of redemption.

Boy by James Hanley (1931)

James Hanley is one of the forgotten great English writers of the twentieth century. An unremittingly grim, shocking but necessary novel, Boy is the story of Fearon, who escapes from his abusive father and stows away on a merchant ship bound for Alexandria. Because of its shocking content, Boy was initially only released as a limited edition of just 145 copies. When it was later published in an expurgated edition, the novel was prosecuted for obscenity and subsequently suppressed for 50 years. What distinguishes the book is its bleak authenticity and the percussive, uncompromising power of Hanley’s language.

Islands in the Stream by Ernest Hemingway (1970)

The first of Hemingway’s posthumous works to be published, Islands in the Stream was stitched together from the vast Land, Sea and Air manuscript Hemingway worked on for the last twenty-five years of his life. Islands is the story of Thomas Hudson, a painter living on the Gulf Stream island of Bimini.

Published in a compromised, unfinished form, Islands in the Stream is not a great novel, but it contains some of Hemingway’s finest writing about the sea and the abiding love he felt for it. The bright luminosity of Bimini’s sun and the blue water of the Gulf Stream are always present when you read.

Outerbridge Reach by Robert Stone (1992)

An outstanding contemporary sea novel in the tradition of Conrad and Melville, Outerbridge Reach tells the story of Owen Browne, a Vietnam veteran and graduate of the Annapolis naval academy. In his early 40s, married for 20 years and the father of a teenage daughter, Browne has left the navy and is working for a yacht brokerage in Connecticut. On a whim, and to escape the doldrums into which he has fallen, Browne commits himself to a round-the-world single-handed sailing race. He has never before taken a yacht out onto the ocean alone. What follows is a story of man discovering, and going beyond, his limits. Outerbridge Reach is a wonderful and heartbreaking novel about madness, self-deception, love and betrayal by one of the great American writers of the second half of the twentieth century.

Haunts of the Black Masseur – The Swimmer as Hero by Charles Sprawson (1992)

An unmatched celebration of swimming and a brilliant study of swimmers and swimming in literature, Haunts of the Black Masseur explores the meaning and fascination of water to different cultures. The book features tremendous and revealing portraits of some of the sports great exponents and heroes: Byron, Poe, Leander, Webb, Johnny Weismuller, Hart Crane and many others. Charles Sprawson, who has swum the Hellespont, presents the figure of the swimmer as one simultaneously liberated and self-absorbed. A book that anticipated and surpasses more recent books celebrating the revival of interest in open water swimming.

The Drowned World by J. G. Ballard. (1962)

I’m currently re-reading Ballard’s first novel as part of the research for my next book, The Last Good Summer. The Drowned World is a post-apocalyptic novel set in a mostly submerged London. The city has been transformed by climate change into a lush, overheated tropical jungle dominated by a network of  lagoons. The novel’s central character is Dr Robert Kerans, who oversees the testing station monitoring the earth’s transformation to a mostly submerged and uninabited jungle. What’s fascinating about the book is that Ballard is not interested in having Kerans or anybody else discover a way to escape, but rather he is interested in how human beings are changed by, and grow to accept, the new reality.


The Sea on Fire by Howard Cunnell is out now, published by Picador.