There are some cataclysmic moments in life where it feels as if you’ve been totally thrown out of the normal flow of time. It might be a horrendous accident or the unexpected death of a loved one or the abrupt end of a relationship, but these moments often take on a kind of timelessness because it breaks our sense of identity; we become no one. The man at the centre of “Cove” experiences an extremely rare and dramatic event one day when fishing too far out at sea: a storm moves quickly in and he gets struck by lightening. He suddenly finds that “Time was a wide ocean.” Injured and confused he must painfully struggle to get back to shore. Written with a sparse, deft prose style, Cynan Jones conveys the man’s near hallucinatory state battling the elements and memories as he drifts in his kayak.
This is a novel where the author makes every word count. The painful physical descriptions of the man’s injuries and growing thirst are vividly written, yet Jones doesn’t indulge in an over-abundance of detail. It was just enough to make me feel the intensity of the situation and the full horror of it. At the same time, memories swell up in the man’s consciousness as he fumbles with the few supplies he has to hand. There is a sense of him being swallowed by the past with thoughts of U-boats in these waters and his father’s ashes scattered in the waves. But there are also thoughts of a woman and child who will be lost to him if he doesn’t return. He projects an idea of the physical ramifications of his potential absence in everyday objects such as “a coffee cup, never moved, the little left liquid growing into a ghost of dust.” It’s in something as small as this that an awareness of all he’ll lose grows in the reader’s mind: the way an individual can vanish from the pages of history.
It’s interesting thinking about this book in relation to Paul Kingsnorth’s recent novel “Beast” because they are both novels written in a pared down style and concern men who have become nearly anonymous. One big difference is that the protagonist of “Cove” seeks desperately to return to and regain his normal life whereas the narrator of “Beast” actively avoids returning to his home and family. The existential horror the man at the centre of “Cove” faces is triggered by being violently cut off from civilization so that he becomes his own island. It provokes a feeling at one point that the world may have vanished in his absence: “What if there has been some quiet apocalypse?” Also, rather than the eponymous beast which ominously stalks the narrator of Kingsnorth’s novel, Jones imagines for his protagonist the benign, comical figure of a sunfish guiding his kayak in a beautifully surreal moment of calm.
Reading “Cove” is a brisk, thrilling experience that creates a series of haunting images and will leave you in a contemplative state of mind.