The Language of the Sea: A Novel

The Language of the Sea: A Novel

by James MacManus

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A lyrical and affecting family drama which challenges readers to re-examine their perception of nature

A striking blend of realism and contemporary myth-making, this unforgettable novel tells the story of marine biologist Leo Kemp. Having lost his teaching position thanks to outspoken views, Leo decides to go on one last field trip with his students. The outing becomes disastrous when the weather turns and Leo is thrown overboard. The evocative description of Leo's journey explores what can happen beyond our perceived knowledge of science. James MacManus's The Language of the Sea tests the bounds of reality with his cunning narrative set within the beautiful community of Cape Cod.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781429923996
Publisher: St. Martin''s Publishing Group
Publication date: 05/10/2011
Sold by: Macmillan
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 304
File size: 312 KB

About the Author

JAMES MACMANUS is the Managing Director of the Times Literary Supplement. His first book, Ocean Devil, was made into a film starring Jonathan Rhys Meyers. The Language of the Sea is his first novel.

JAMES MACMANUS is the managing director of the Times Literary Supplement. He is the author of Black Venus, The Language of the Sea and Ocean Devil, which was made into a film starring Jonathan Rhys Meyers. He lives in London.

Read an Excerpt

The Language of the Sea

A Novel

By James MacManus

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2010 James MacManus
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-2399-6


This was the best time, the time before the tourists arrived in their hundreds of thousands, the time when the winter gales had stopped battering this bent arm of land thrust into the Atlantic, a time when Cape Cod allowed you to look back on the harpooners, sailors and fishermen who shaped its past while urging you to put your dollars down and book a whitewashed shingle house for the summer.

May was always a good month on the Cape: buds breaking on the beech, birch, hemlock and maple trees, the old elms throwing a green tracery of young leaves against a spring sky, beach rose plants showing the first pink blooms; young birds on the wing along every stretch of shore – dunlin, sandpiper, yellow legs, oystercatchers, egrets; seal pups wearing big eyes and grey whiskers flopping on the sandbanks; and prices half what you were going to pay after Memorial Weekend at the end of the month.

Leo Kemp dropped in on the Foodworks café in Falmouth for a breakfast of free-range scrambled eggs and a mug of fair-trade Colombian coffee: Foodworks was run by a bottle-tanned Californian princess who wore bright green eye shadow and a T-shirt that said Overnight Sensation on the back and You Are What You Eat on the front. Leo paid $12.35 including tip for breakfast. It would be a third more in ten days' time, he thought.

He had left Margot asleep in bed, lying on her back with Sam's head nestling in the crook of her outstretched arm. Sam who at 16, half-woman, half-child, still burrowed into their bed at unreasonable hours of the morning. Two careless, sleeping faces framed by a tangle of fair hair.

The old Saab 900 pretty much drove itself the four miles to the Coldharbor Institute for Marine Studies while Leo let his mind drift to his nine o'clock lecture with the new class. They were second-year marine biology postgraduate students. For those who persevered – and the dropout rate was high – their Ph.D. would lead to more postgrad studies, a year or two of fieldwork, a series of papers in academic journals, maybe a book, and then on to the lower rungs of academia, where they would begin their scramble up the ladder towards tenure.

If you sat them down and asked them why they wanted to study oceanography, the answers would be variants on a single theme: climate change. Fair enough, thought Kemp: the oceans and the weather are inextricably linked; but the answer missed the real point.

And if you asked them what they really, really wanted to do with their careers, the honest ones would admit that they would prefer to stay and work here at the Institute.

And why not?

Coldharbor, as Leo had tried to convince himself far too many times, was a great and beautiful place in which to learn and teach; a place in which to enjoy a comfortable lifestyle, raise a family and grow old gracefully.

And it was true. The Institute dominated what had once been a little fishing village and was now the main terminal for the ferries that ploughed to and from Martha's Vineyard, fourteen times a day in winter, eighteen times in the summer. Apart from a handful of restaurants, bars and tourist souvenir shops clustered around the terminal, and several hundred holiday homes for the yachting crowd, the Institute pretty much was Coldharbor.

When the pilgrims first came to the Cape in the 1620s they found to their amazement that the local Wampanoag Indians were already expert whalers. Canoes made from birch branches and animal hide carried those fearless fishermen on hunting expeditions into the Atlantic armed only with stone-headed arrows and crude spears attached to short lines with wooden floats.

The Coldharbor Institute saw its researchers and scientists as the intellectual equivalent of those daring early fishermen: seekers after the secrets of the seven great oceans of the world, rather than the oil and blubber of the mighty cetaceans that swam in them.

Here the world's leading marine biologists and scientists from every discipline of oceanography gathered to study the salinity and density of the oceans, the currents that swirled within their uncharted depths, the topography of the seabed, the effects of wind on the sea and wave on the shoreline.

Coldharbor also concerned itself with the behaviour of sea mammals: whales, dolphins and seals, the warm-blooded, oxygen-breathing creatures that inhabit our oceans. But the stars of the Institute's repertoire were the deep-sea submersibles, known more prosaically as autonomous underwater vehicles, which could descend to depths of 17,000 feet and which, with the ocean-going vessels that supported and launched them, all operated from this small harbour on the Cape.

Leo Kemp was a part of this family of scientists with a solid body of published research to prove it. A family – that was how the Institute thought of itself: a community of researchers, educators and explorers, bound together by loyalty and a common cause – unravelling the secrets of the oceans and of the fish and the mammals that live in them.

It had been a long, blustery winter, followed by an unusually warm spring. Crossing the quad, Leo felt the warmth of early summer on his back. He looked at the line of modern buildings, all steel, chrome and glass, functional but not inelegant, that stretched along the ridge overlooking Vineyard Sound. Research centres, laboratories, aquaria, offices, libraries, lecture rooms; all the academic infrastructure to drive the institute forward on its mission.

And there was plenty of money to make it happen. The Institute's president and chief executive, Tallulah Bonner, 55 years old and with a treacly Southern drawl that stretched all the way back to her home town of Atlanta, made sure of that. 'Bonner's bounty', they called it.

Chief Executive Bonner understood big money. She knew that for every big private donation there was always a payback.

Every year at the annual financial review with the Board of Governors she made the same speech. Coldharbor was a private institute that received funds from government departments, especially the US Navy, she reminded them. But it relied mostly on private endowments from the wealthy.

'Big donors are not putting a down payment on eternity when they give to us. Sure, they get their name up somewhere carved in wood or stone. And they're not looking for gratitude, because the rich can buy that any day of the week. No, what they're looking for is fulfilment. They want the assurance they're making a contribution to the development of scientific knowledge on which the future of the human race depends. And, gentlemen, I make damn sure they understand that their generosity is critical to our mission.'

And she did. She knew exactly how to make the super-wealthy feel good about giving.

'The rich are like you and me when it comes to dying. They want to look back and feel they've done something with their life.'

At elegant fundraisers in New York and Boston, Tallulah Bonner knew better than to waffle on about the strategic importance of oceanography. Donors would always give for a good cause, and she gave them that cause through the simple but persuasive argument that the dawn of the space age should never detract from the study of marine science.

Let NASA spend trillions proving that there was no life on Mars, but spare a few hundred million for the study of what really mattered, the oceans that covered four-fifths of the earth's surface.

Luckily the Pentagon had supported this thesis, or at least accepted that oceanography had an important if secondary role in mapping out future war scenarios. Submarines had proved themselves in the cold war era, and their territory – the canyons and valleys that shape the landscape of the ocean floor – was exactly where Coldharbor devoted the bulk of its research.

So while Houston and the space cowboys took the lion's share of the money – and the glory – Coldharbor quietly took in enough funds to get on with what really mattered.

Trouble was, thought Leo, what really mattered on a warm morning, when the beaches were empty and the sea clean and fresh, was getting even a handful of students to listen to him.

He took the stairs to the second-floor lecture hall two at a time. His father, a retired doctor from Melbourne, had always told him that lifts were a greater health hazard than nicotine: 'The elevator has contributed more to the high rate of heart attacks in America than cigarettes, alcohol and fatty foods put together.' This oft-stated paternal thesis translated into equally frequent advice that not only should his son never take a lift, but that he should always eat porridge for breakfast.

His father was a living proof of the validity of his own advice, having reached the age of 92 without ever having taken a lift, or so he claimed. The fact that he continued to smoke and drink well in excess of the most liberal health guidelines merely confirmed the aged parent's view about Mr Otis and the invention that had transformed urban skylines around the world.

There were thirty postgraduate students in the class but, as Leo had guessed, just twelve faces looked up from their iPods, BlackBerries, magazines and even a few copies of the Boston Globe as he walked in.

The tiered ranks of empty seating that rose before the podium seemed a perfect comment on the lecture subject: language and communication among mature pinnipeds.

Leo placed a sheaf of papers on the lecture stand. There was a reluctant rustle as the students stashed their papers, detached themselves from their earplugs and swung their attention to him.

He began with the traditional welcome, wishing them well in their studies. He then left the podium and walked up the staircase that divided the seating, speaking without notes. It was an old trick, but it always worked.

'At the beginning of this course, I just want to say two things. First, we humans are defined not by what we know, but by what we do not know. The science that has brought you here, like all scientific disciplines, has no final frontiers, and it never will have.'

He explained that this world of theirs was a water planet. Their forebears had crawled from the oceans millions of years ago and begun to climb the evolutionary ladder. Many millions of years later, when man first emerged from the African rain forest on to the savannah and was forced to stand upright – some five million years ago – the marine mammals, the seals, dolphins and whales he had left behind in the sea, were fully formed and living in a complex ecosystem that had sustained them and us ever since.

'Yet throughout human history we have slaughtered those mammals, and today we have gone a step further. We have begun to destroy the environment on which this planet depends – its oceans. We are urbanising and industrialising the great seas of the world.

'So as you progress through your studies, I want you to remember that our future on this planet depends not on the exploration of space – important though that is – but on understanding the oceans that surround us and first gave us life, and still do today.'

Leo paused at the top of the staircase. Twelve heads had now turned, necks craned to keep him in sight. Was that a flicker of interest down there? Had his words triggered the smallest thought processes in those heads? Probably not.

He walked back to the podium.

'What I want to talk about today is the language of sea mammals, and especially seals. Until recently we did not know that they communicated at all. Now we do know that whales, dolphins and seals all have their language, but we don't know how they use that language. These are highly intelligent creatures – we know that – but how are we to decode the intelligence in those remarkable brains?'

A few pens were moving across the big spiral-bound notepads. It was always the girls first. Then the boys would follow suit. Pretty girls, too. Mostly American, but some from Finland, Norway and Japan, where they took marine science seriously. So seriously in Norway that they slaughtered seals as vermin and even ate them.

Leo decided to wake the class up.

'We're going to take a break,' he said, and pressed a switch.

They all stirred, even the boys.

The room darkened. The students sat up, suddenly interested; a screen came down at the touch of a button.

'You are here to study marine biology. Why? Because the oceans around us hold the key to our survival on earth?


'Because the seas cover four-fifths of the earth's surface, and we know so little about how they work?


'And perhaps because we need to get hold of this fact: twenty-first-century science, science that can take a man to the moon and land a machine on Mars, cannot answer some fundamental questions posed by our oceans. Why not? Take a look at this.'

Leo pressed a switch. He loved and hated the Institute in almost equal measure, but on the love side came a real respect for the technology bought by all those endowments. Things really worked. Back at St Andrews University in Scotland where he had begun his career some eighteen years earlier, you were lucky to find a slide rule that worked.

The screen glowed into life, showing a snowy landscape. The camera tracked to the foreshore of a broad, tree-lined estuary, with a soundtrack of running water and wind in the leaves. It then zoomed in on a group of wading birds the size of small seagulls. The birds had brown-flecked plumage, long legs and curved beaks. They walked slowly along the water's edge, pausing to stab their beaks into the soft mud and then throwing their heads back to swallow whatever morsel they had found below the surface. Suddenly alarmed, the flock wheeled as one into the air, their outsize wings lifting them rapidly away from whatever danger they had perceived.

A voice-over said: 'The bar-tailed godwit has been tracked by the Pacific Shorebird Migration Project via satellite tagging, and has been proved to be the world's avian migratory champion, flying further non-stop than any other migrating bird. The godwit flies 10,200 miles south from its breeding ground in Alaska without stop-ping in flight. It can make the flight in seven days with the benefit of a tailwind, and can return north in nine days. Incredibly, godwit chicks can make the southbound flight when only two months old. These are amazing journeys, which the latest technology has allowed us to track and feed into our ongoing research into migration patterns.'

Kemp flipped a switch, and the lights came back on.

'OK, what's missing there?'

A hand went up. It would be him. That studious boy from Michigan, Jacob Sylvester, a state scholar. Leo had met his new students at an induction class. He always tried to spot the ones that were going to make something of the subject but it was difficult. Sometimes the shy, silent types produced original thinking in their coursework while the pushy talkers simply regurgitated everything they had read.

Sylvester was a talker; he asked all the right questions and took notes in laborious longhand. He had a Ph.D. and academic career stamped all over him. Rachel Ginsberg wasn't really shy but she pretended to be and looked at the floor while asking complex questions about the marking of grades. She would flash him quick looks from under long eyelashes to see if he was listening and smile slightly when he nodded her to go on. He sensed she was very ambitious and he knew her foxy-faced good looks would take her up the corporate ladder in some big company.

Then there was Gunbrit Nielsen, very serious, very pretty, with slate-grey eyes and a long plaited pigtail. She was far too beautiful to be sitting in anyone's class studying marine biology. She should be on a movie set on the west coast. But here she was in his class working for a Ph.D. that would take her back home to a teaching job in Sweden, marriage to a man with a thick red beard and four children.

He would get to know them well over the course of the year and would watch to see how, just as in the wild, a natural leader emerged from the group. Already they seemed to take their lead from Sylvester, letting him ask the questions.

'Sea mammals, sir. This isn't our subject,' said Sylvester.

Leo snapped out of his reverie.

'Well, clearly a godwit is not a seal, Mr Sylvester. Let me repeat the question: what is missing from that commentary? Something important, really important, that has been left unsaid?'


Excerpted from The Language of the Sea by James MacManus. Copyright © 2010 James MacManus. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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