“Ah! The good old time – the good old time. Youth and the sea, Glamour and the sea! The good, strong sea, the salt, bitter sea, that could whisper to you and roar at you and knock your breath out of you.”
Imagine these words spoken in the gravelly, stentorian tones of that famous son of Dundee, actor Brian Cox. I was given his audiobook of a slightly abridged version of Youth: A Narrative by Joseph Conrad while I was part-way through writing my first novel She Rises. Youth is a short, wry tale about the young merchant-seaman Marlow (more famously Heart of Darkness’ protagonist) and his first voyage as second mate, on a coal ship bound for Bangkok – all storms, collisions, explosions and madness. I just loved it. Even listening to it again now brings tears to my eyes.
I could not get enough of it. I played it again and again: while driving, while walking, while washing up. I still know sections of it by heart.
Of course, I fell in love with Cox's narration. He chews over every nuance of Conrad's inimitable phrasing, extracts every ounce of sentiment, spits out his sentences with heartbreaking disdain.
I also could not get enough of Conrad's mastery of first-person narration, how he moves effortlessly from prosaic detail – the captain's wife urging Marlow to make sure the captain wears his muffler at night – to moments of great human insight and soaring emotional resonance, such as Marlow's first sighting of the men of the East. I realised that what I needed to find in my novel was the voice, and once I got that everything else would follow.
Now, of course, it's easy to see why it meant so much to me. The parallels with what I was trying to write are clear: She Rises is also a coming-of-age story told retrospectively in the first person from a distance of many years, in which the pleasures of the past can never be revisited, and the most important evolutions occur unobserved until it is too late to do anything about them. It's also a story in which a young person falls under the spell of the sea, and is changed irrevocably by it. I realise too that as I struggled with my text, Conrad had become my benchmark for prose most elegant, moving and precise.
On my audiobook, Youth was the B-side, so to speak, to that literary classic Heart of Darkness. But it is Brian Cox's Youth that I would press on anyone who had never read Conrad, and oh how I would envy them, hearing it for the first time.
She Rises by Kate Worsley is published by Bloomsbury on 14 March.