The Sea Lady, by Margaret Drabble

Reviewed by Rima Walker

In his famous poem, Out of the Cradle, Walt Whitman reveals the sea as our beginning and ending.  The Sea Lady does pretty much the same.  Using metaphors and other images of the sea and its rich and diverse life, Margaret Drabble introduces her characters on a North Sea shore in England and returns them there at the end. What lies between are their unfolding lives into their maturity, their career development, their tempestuous love story, their reunion after many years apart.  This is all revealed in alternate chapters as the characters travel and remember: “The sinews and valves of  . . . memory would be prised open, slowly, painfully, with each mile . . .traveled, like the stiff hinges of a shellfish.”

Sounds like an ordinary plot, doesn’t it?  But in the hands of the witty, deft Ms. Drabble, many themes wind in and out of the lives of Ailsa Kelman, an exhibitionistic, brash, but admirable and popular feminist, and of Humphrey Clark, a marine biologist who since childhood was frequently unsure of himself and highly sensitive. As a child he was described as “too much given to suffering of others.” He becomes a marine biologist because as he searched for a career, he remembered that fish “were graceful.  Underwater life was full of movement and grace.”  Two more different people can’t be imagined. They meet on a beach as young children who don’t particularly like each other, meet again years later, fall in love in typically turbulent 60’s style, marry and then part. Through the auspices of a mysterious stranger, the Public Orator, they come together again in their late sixties.

The themes deal with memory, successes and failures of the characters’ careers  and personal lives, the beginnings and endings of relationships, friendship, and how our destinies lie in our beginnings in certain places of our childhood that leave indelible marks upon us.

Ailsa appears first as a book award presenter in Marine Hall surrounded by life-size 3-dimensional models of “sharks and dolphins. . .and the more futuristic magnified presences of plankton and barnacles and sea squirts and sea slugs.”  She herself is a mermaid, adorned in a dress of “silver sequined scales.”

We meet Humphrey as a young boy, movingly described through his memories when he is in his 60’s and traveling to the North Sea town’s University where he had first fallen in love with the sea and its creatures and where he formed a close friendship with Sandy Clegg, a native of the seaside town. Ailsa is heading for the same town and the same conference; through the alternating memories of each, the story of their lives until then is unfolded, from their meeting as children at the seashore and through their extremely different lives.

Enter the Public Orator, a character who throughout the book comments on what is going on as though he were one of a Greek Chorus.  He is mysterious; he is a deus ex machina (the god from the machine) who reveals Ailsa and Humphrey to us but also at last influences them to resolve their relationship with one another. The novel ends with a surprise in terms of the Public Orator; it also comes full circle for Ailsa and Humphrey.

I like Margaret Drabble’s writing; her prose is straightforward and clear, yet she plays with language in a delightful way. We come to know her characters very well. They are full of faults and are entirely human and real so we can identify with so much about them. ~