Philip Hoare’s previous book, Leviathan, won the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction. Its success was deserved. It explores the whale both as a natural phenomenon and as it has affected our cultural, historical and literary imagination.
Nature writing, like travel writing in its last boom period, offers a generously capacious bag into which arcane information, asides, narrative, quests and concerns personal, environmental and philosophical can be stuffed. This openness is part of its appeal. The problem, as ever, is to make it cohere. Leviathan did so by the clarity of its concept. Other writings are held together by the urgency of the personal vision (Richard Mabey comes to mind), the conceptual underpinning (Robert Macfarlane) or the revelatory power of pure writing (Kathleen Jamie).
For this reader The Sea Inside, unlike its predecessor, does not cohere. The blurb claims it is ‘part memoir, part fantastical travelogue’, but it is scarcely either. The unifying topic may be the sea in history, culture, biology and imagination, but it reads as patchy and sketchy, never fully engaging