The Sea Lady - Book of the Month
by Margaret Drabble
It’s the 1940s and Ailsa and Humphrey meet in the windswept northern town of Finsterness. They make up a foursome with Ailsa’s brother, Tommy, and Humphrey’s friend, Sandy Clegg. Here in the long summer holidays the children play on the beach and fish in the rock pools that fascinate the young Humphrey - and will inspire his future career as a marine biologist. Ailsa, on the other hand, true to character, goes for a less insular career to become a publicity-craving feminist and writer. In the 1960s they meet again by chance and briefly come together. The story begins with the two of them, now in their sixties, making their separate ways back to Finsterness each to receive honorary degrees from the local university.
The narrative goes back and forth - towards the reunion and back to those childhood scenes in the 1940s. As they each muse on their respective journeys to the north we learn the details of their past, how it shaped their lives, and how they now feel as they approach old age. Their anticipation and trepidation as they reflect on encountering each other again is palpable.
The most enjoyable parts of this book are the childhood scenes. Humphrey’s anxieties and loneliness, his awe of the rebellious Ailsa, the lack of sophistication in the north - “parsley was a refinement rarely seen in Finsterness” - are described beautifully. The sequence where he has his tonsils removed is particularly evocative if, like me, you experienced this trauma in the 40s or 50s.
Intermittently the author uses the construct of a “Public Orator”, a Prospero character that didn’t quite work. However, Margaret Drabble’s writing is beautifully descriptive, moving and funny, and in this novel she conveys the passage of time, love and loss with an exp
Read our interview with Margaret Drabble.