Tuesday, April 11, 2023

Sea Bean - Sally Huband

I'm wondering if I have a favourite time of the publishing year? I used to think it was autumn, super Thursday, and all the big releases landing before Christmas - but a lot of those books aren't very interesting to me. Right now though interesting books are landing thick and fast on every subject and in every genre and I've struck metaphorical gold a couple of times already.

Sally Huband's Sea Bean is the first of these hits - it will easily be one of my books of the year, but more than that, it's one of a handful of things that I've read early or in proof and felt that it's something special. I hope my instinct is right on this one too.

I've followed Huband's work for a couple of years - she's been in a couple of anthologies that I've really liked, including Antlers of Water, was mentioned in one of Stephen Rutt's books, and had generally become a name to watch out for. I'm not quite sure what I expected after I read the first short description of Sea Bean in The Bookseller which focused on trauma and the restorative effects of beachcombing in a way that frankly put me off. I'm well aware of the beneficial effects of immersing ourselves in nature, but wary of taking that to far, or making a sort of cult out of it.

Huband emphatically does not do this. She moved to Shetland in 2011 with her husband and baby son. He is a helicopter pilot working in the oil industry. It's not a flexible job in terms of childcare so starting a family meant some difficult decisions for Sally - children weren't compatible with her academic career either where progression, and this is common to most jobs - is reliant on overwork in early years and often the need to move to where the jobs are. When he's offered a job in Shetland it sounds like taking it was an easy decision for the family.

Unfortunately pregnancy triggers chronic illness for Sally, and her hopes of finding a job in Shetland that would cover the costs of childcare don't come off. The specifics of her experience are unique, but the often painful experience of reinvention to accommodate a partners better paid profession, beginning a family, and indeed bodies that we can no longer assume will behave as we think they should are not. The way Huband writes about undoubtedly difficult things is matter of fact and honest. I'd say brave, but that has a slightly condescending ring to it which feels wrong to me - unselfish is a better description, because the more personal things seem to me to be shared in the spirit of letting others know they are not alone if they've felt the same.

The summery on the back of my proof describes Sea Bean as "..a message in a bottle. An interconnection of our oceans, communities and ourselves, and an invitation to feel belonging when we are adrift." which sums it up well. Sally finds a home and a community both in Shetland and beyond it through beachcombing, volunteering for research projects related to wildlife, and through her writing. I can't think of anything I've read off hand that better describes the rewards and challenges of island life, and how it can offer both freedom and a feeling of being trapped depending on circumstances. 

When I got my copy it came with a promotional postcard showing a message in a bottle which prompted me to message the publicist to tell her the story of my father finding this message in a bottle . She replied that this was the sort of connection the book was full of, it is, dad's story is mentioned in passing. It's also these connections, finding the things that draw us together that make island life work. Huband talks about building a community of care in a sometimes stifling community of place - she hasn't been afraid to speak out on contentious local issues - build enough connections with people and you can withstand the pressure to keep quite and keep the peace. 

Shetland is at the centre of this book, but it reaches far beyond following the path of the things that wash up on it's shores from all over the world. Inbetween there are bits of history and folklore, local issues that have national significance, meditations on what the proliferation of plastic in our environment means for all of us, and a myriad of different connections to make.

It's an extraordinary book. Generous, profound, curious, wide ranging, warm, challenging, beautifully written and endlessly interesting. I can't recommend it highly enough, it's filled me with hope for what is possible and for the resilience of women and islanders.


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