Stranger from the Sea: A Novel

Stranger from the Sea: A Novel

by Paul Binding


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The dramatic and moving re-imagination of the characters from Ibsen’s The Lady from the Sea, set against the backdrop of a late-nineteenth-century English Channel town that harbors many secrets

After a ferocious early springtime storm, young Norwegian sailor Hans Lyngstrand is shipwrecked in the English Channel near the coastal Kent town of Dengate; he is one of few survivors. Soon after, aspiring journalist Martin Bridges takes a job as the reporter at the local newspaper. A loner by nature, he’s a curiosity to the nosy townspeople, the gregarious editor of the paper, and his melodramatic landlady, whose own private life is fraught by the unexplained absence of her son and suspicious disappearance of her husband.

But when Hans moves into the “Mercy Room” of Martin’s boardinghouse to convalesce and Martin’s editor assigns him the task of interviewing the young sailor, it upends his otherwise uneventful world. Hans tells him of his travels at sea, how he survived the shipwreck—and of his encounter with a ferocious sailor vowing to seek revenge, who Hans believes may still be alive. So begins a complex friendship between the two young men that will cause Martin to reexamine his past and future ambitions and his relationships with everyone around him.

In The Stranger from the Sea, the backstories Paul Binding creates for Ibsen’s classic Lady from the Sea characters unfold in tandem with the secret romances, rivalries, and heartaches of a seemingly unremarkable town. The result is a transporting, lyrical, and quietly captivating period piece that will mesmerize readers from its opening pages.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781468316421
Publisher: The Overlook Press
Publication date: 02/19/2019
Pages: 352
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.40(d)

About the Author

Paul Binding is a literary critic, novelist, and a renowned expert in Scandinavian literature. Among his books are studies of Ibsen, Lorca, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Hans Christian Andersen.

Read an Excerpt


I Find a New Home (I Don't Think)

When I was given the job on The Channel Ports Advertiser, I felt fortune had turned in my favor at last. I had been working on a South London newspaper for three whole years and was still spending far too much time running backwards and forwards between office and printers. I'd been taken on, after, all in the understanding that sooner rather than later I'd be a reporter going out and about in pursuit of stories. And I followed all the latest movements in our press, particularly the activities of W. T. Stead at his Pall Mall Gazette, and regularly relayed them to Mr. Burton, my editor. Well, eventually the day came when Burtie called me in to say he'd been chatting with fellow editors in our newspaper group and had learned of a vacancy in The Advertiser, down in Dengate, on the south Kent coast. So the very next week — on Thursday, February 19, 1885, to be exact — I rook the train down to meet one Mr. Edmund Hough.

"We are expanding here handsomely," this man informed me. "And so have room for another young man on our staff. Provided, of course, that he has the required largeness. Largeness of spirit, that is," he added, his brown eyes twinkling.

Well, if he'd been looking for the other kind, I would not have fitted the bill, being on the short side, and lean and wiry in build. With respect to physical largeness, Mr. Hough, a man in his mid-forties wearing a black velvet jacket and crimson bow-tie, wasn't doing too badly: ruddy face, bull neck, full stomach.

Dengate I already knew from daytrips with friends from my South London paper: crowded beaches, famous white cliffs, long terraces of boarding-houses and hotels. My mates and I had thoroughly enjoyed ourselves here: listening to singers and comedians in the booths, whispering outrageous things to passing girls (well, that was Will Postgate of course, with the rest of us egging him on!), and, naturally, partaking of jellied-eels and winkles. But I'd no more thought of living in Dengate than in the Tower of London or Madame Tussauds. I was only twenty-three — though, to my shame, a few months older than the great W. T. Stead when he took over The Northern Echo — and had spent at most half a dozen nights away from London. Could a seaside resort — further from "The Smoke" than I'd realized — truly cater for my needs?

Mr. Edmund Hough was clearly reading my thoughts.

"What goes on in Dengate, Bridges, is as important as what goes on anywhere else in the world. The Advertiser is in the vanguard of British papers in giving attention to regional news. When the last of those beastly restrictive taxes went, it became easier for a local paper to be, well, local. As it should be. In the bad old days" — Mr. Hough batted them away with his right hand — "many of our pages were filled with syndicated stuff just like your average London rag. But no longer! Bridges, you'll be able to write all those exciting articles I hear you aspire to without going beyond this goodly borough of ours. Like any other reporter you'll be covering the usual run of civic events, but any high dramas that come our way, you'll be in line for meeting head-on!"

Music to my ears! Edmund Hough's voice, coming though it did from an ample body, was light and breezy, and every so often leaped upwards with excitement into a boyish register.

"For the moment, like every other paper in Kent, The Advertiser is a weekly, but I am aiming at twice a week, no less ... Well, you'll be wanting to know about the outfit here. We are seven, excluding our unwaged apprentice, Peter Frobisher. The rest are seasoned pressmen of various shapes and sizes. Everybody turns his hand to everything; we all sub our own pieces, and usually each other's as well, provide our own headlines, attend to questions of length and space, and jiggle pieces so they fit in 'round the advertisements which — though I says it as shouldn't — are now positively pouring in. This obviously involves discussion with ..."

I knew it! I said to myself even before he'd finished his sentence. I hadn't done with visits to the printers yet, and those The Advertiser used were situated at a convenient distance of three streets, Barrett Brothers, in red-brick premises built to accommodate their new-model rotary machines. Oh well, if I had to, I had to. I was now noticing, as Mr. Hough talked eloquently on, two framed lines of handsomely lettered verse hanging over his none-too-tidy desk:

Flesh unto spirit must grow.
Spirit raves not for a goal.

Shakespeare? Milton? Anyway, I wasn't sure I agreed with this bloke. My spirit did have a goal, even "raved" for it: to be a first-class reporter. And Mr. Hough himself surely had one too: the success of The Advertiser.

"Is there anything you'd like to tell me," he was now asking, "about your own approach to a newspaper?"

Here was my opportunity, all right. I spoke — jolly well in the circumstances, but then I'd been rehearsing all train journey down — of the example Tit-Bits was setting us all, with its miscellanies of interesting facts, its jokes, its short stories. (I didn't mention that I had gone in for one of its competitions myself, with a humorous story, and had received not, I confess, the "Tit-Bits Villa" promised as first prize but an Honorable Mention!) I expressed my admiration, too, for W. T. Stead's Pall-Mall Gazette with its emphasis on interviews, its determination to show readers areas of national life other publications shied away from.

"Capital, capital!" said Mr. Edmund Hough. "You're clearly a man after my own heart." Then he took out a huge crimson handkerchief, which matched his bowtie, mopped his brow twice or thrice, and then said: "I've just one further question for you, Bridges."

My pulse-rate speeded up, my mouth turned dry. Whatever finer points of typography and modern equipment had I coming to me? Or, worse still, elaborate and testing intricacies of costing? Imagine my surprise at being asked: "Would you say you are cheerful?"

Dare I reply that both inside the South London office and outside it, folk considered me something of a wag? Will Postgate, no less, had called me this.

I answered: "I believe I am."

"Good!" said Mr. Hough. "Cheerfulness makes the world go 'round."

"I'll say!" I agreed sycophantically, though I'd always heard it was love which did this. I could hold back no longer. "Mr. Hough," I blurted. "Might I be so bold as to ask if I have a chance of this vacancy on The Advertiser?"

"My dear Bridges," Edmund Hough sounded positively grieved, "how can you doubt it? The position is yours."

So this then was my great day. I had my feet now on a sturdy rung of exactly the ladder I desired.

Yet almost as soon as I left the Advertiser's premises, I was struck by Dengate's overpowering quietness. I was in the very center of the town, and where was the bustle, the mishmash of diverse, and often intriguing, folk such as any ordinary London borough would provide? On this February afternoon of half-light and clammy sea-fret, the seagulls wheeling whitely under gray clouds were the most active living beings in sight. Then I recalled, Spirit raves not for a goal. Which probably meant, Take any damned opportunity given you and make the most of it.

A fortnight later I went down to Dengate again, to settle the little matter of where I should live. Mr. Hough, ever helpful, had not only suggested the best date for me to start work, but had recommended lodgings — with "my good friend," Mrs. Fuller, in Castelaniene, St. Ethelberga's Road. I'd therefore written to her. Her house's unusual name — but it was now quite the thing to call your home after some favorite exotic place — ought apparently to be pronounced "Cass-tell-an-yaynay" being "the name of an Italian village very dear to the late Mr. Fuller. But most Dengaters, bless 'em, can't cope with Italian, and call it 'Castle Aneen.' Mrs. Fuller, though, puts up with such ignorance, as, dear soul, she has put up with so much else."

"Dear soul," eh? This friend of my new Editor's would require my best manner, and as much sophistication as I could muster.

All journey down it rained. The train pulled up at stations the very names of which meant nothing to me, and behind which buildings receded into the murk of the day's unrelieved wet weather. Dengate Station, when it arrived, though built to receive jolly crowds burning to spend money, had this day a decidedly forlorn look. I found myself a cab.

"St. Ethelberga's Road? Blimey! I could do without going all the way up there!" said my driver. Understandably, I soon saw, for my street turned out to lie on the western edge of the resort, at the top of a steep hill not at all to the horse's liking in this strong insistent rain.

"A house called Cass-tell-an-yaynay," I reminded the cabbie. "But you may know it as Castle Aneen."

"Don't know it as anything at all, guv," he replied, "got better things to do with my time, thank you very much! If you're so eager to get to Castle Thingamajig, you'd better keep your eyes skinned when we get to St. Ethelberga's Road, had you not?"

In fact, we found it easily enough, one of a row of thin, tall, semi-detached villas from the previous decade, three stories excluding the basement. A monkey-puzzle tree grew (and grows still) in its pocket handkerchief of a front garden. Above the front door I noticed a stained-glass fanlight, the sections of which made up a picture of a Greek temple.

My cabbie didn't wait to see whether anybody greeted me or not, but trotted off downhill, the rain now at his back, as though he couldn't get away fast enough. I gave the bell-pull a few vigorous tugs. Perhaps the "dear soul" had forgotten I was coming, though she had assured me, in flamboyant purple ink, of her "enormous pleasure" at seeing me at precisely this hour.

When the door opened, the lady (or was it maiden?) who stood before me looked — to my raindrop-watery eyes — as though she'd stepped out of the vitreous classical scene above my head. She was wearing a loose, ankle-length, lilac tea-gown with long flowing sleeves. I myself, in deference to the cold day and the comparative formality of the occasion, had on my best Norfolk jacket, nattily belted at the back.

"Mr. Bridges?"

No, no maiden she, I could see the lines of middle years in the graceful neck she was craning toward me. Even so Mrs. Fuller wasn't anything like the age I'd been ascribing her from the respectful yet pitying tone of Mr. Hough's letter: she was in her early forties at most.

"The same, ma'am! I hope I've not come too early."

She was peering beyond me at the watery veils screening her little front garden from the rest of road.

"Early?" she repeated vaguely, as if I'd used some foreign word. "No, of course you're not. I was expecting you at just this time, though I didn't know you would appear right on cue like some young hero in a Shakespearean romance."

Like a Shakespearean romance, eh? Such a compliment had come far too soon in our dialogue. I might be only twenty-three, but, lacking a proper home for five years, I had abundant experience of landladies.

Indispensable to a chap though they may sometimes be (perforce), they have as a species two attributes that make 'em damned difficult, if not downright impossible, to deal with: first, the power that comes from their unarguably superior position, and second, their incontestable right to be anywhere they want in their own houses. True, some are hoity-toity, others only too bally willing to have a chat; some grumble, some shout, some even use coarse language to you, while others are genteel to a degree. But I couldn't think of one member of the species I wouldn't have been better off not knowing. Mrs. Fuller would be charging me a considerably higher rent than her predecessors, but then I would be earning more here than hitherto. Also, a Channel Port would make fewer claims on the pocket than did the biggest city on earth, the New Babylon into which I'd been born.

Mrs. Fuller shut the door against the miserable afternoon and turning 'round with a swish of her tea-gown, informed me: "I have been greatly looking forward to this moment, Mr. Bridges. Shall I tell you something most interesting? The night after Edmund — Mr. Hough — suggested you as a lodger, I had a dream. I was walking by a little stream in a garden, and was wondering how I could get across it, when the kindest voice issued from the trees, saying: 'Remember, Beatrice, there are bridges, though you cannot see them yet.' Now wasn't that remarkable?"

"Remarkable indeed!" I concurred, though taken aback. "But then my name lends itself to that sort of thing. If I'd been called common-or-garden Smith, you might of dreamed of a forge with horses' hooves!"

Mrs. Fuller gave a fluttery little laugh clearly uncertain how to take my riposte. "Who knows? The mind does work in the most extraordinary way," she assented. "And yours, I can tell, is a very quick one. Exactly what Edmund — Mr. Hough — said."

I, naturally enough, would have liked to have heard more here, but I couldn't ask for this and maintain dignity. As I had gone all out to please Mr. Hough, it wasn't so astonishing he'd been praising me to his friends. Mrs. Fuller, a tall woman, wore her hair swept up to the crown of her head, and, as I studied it, that sentimental song came into my mind, "Silver threads among the gold." Beware, Martin! I told myself. She may be styled a widow, which makes you picture an ageing woman dressed in black weeds like our Queen, but this woman before you ain't no nun-like recluse never giving men a thought. Perhaps she gives the editor of The Advertiser, for instance, something more than just a thought. You might have to tread carefully in Castelaniene. But Mrs. Fuller was telling me something that sounded important ...

"This, Mr. Bridges, is the real Castelaniene." She was pointing to a gilt-framed photogravure showing houses of Italian appearance like tiled upturned rectangles standing on a mountainside. Apart from dull Latin lessons at school, through which I'd daydreamed (as I had through most other subjects in that horrible realm of chalk-dust and scratched desktops), Italy had scarcely impinged on me.

"Nice-looking spot!" I said.

"Nice!" Mrs. Fuller gave another flutter of laughter. "My husband, George Fuller, called that place un antícipo di paradiso."

"I beg your pardon, Mrs. Fuller?"

"Italian for 'A Foretaste of Heaven'!"

"And that's why he called this house —?"

But Mrs. Fuller obviously felt she'd confided in me enough: "Castle Aneen!" She gave a bitter little smile as she pronounced the name Dengate-fashion. "And I think it's to Castle Aneen we should now give our attention, if you are serious about coming to live here."

Integral to Mrs. Fuller's household, I now learned, was her one resident maid, Sarah, whom at her insistence I met forthwith, a shy, dishevelled woman of perhaps sixty, with a thick unplaceable accent, a wall-eye, and flat feet. Sarah seemed neither surprised nor interested to see me. She did both housework and cooking, but was aided by Mary, a girl who came in every day except Sunday.

"Mary," Mrs. Fuller informed me, "is the most delightful little vehicle." I had never heard this word applied to a person before. Immediately I had an image of this Mary as a human dog-cart, trotting in and out of Castelaniene to do her bit of charring.

I would, continued Mrs. Fuller, be given breakfast and an evening meal every day except Sunday, when the principal meal was luncheon, which, if I ever wanted it, would be an "extra" on my bill, Sarah being a "Roman" who had to go to Mass beforehand. The very words "Sunday luncheon" brought back gloomy memories of my own home-that-was-no-more, the board presided over by my garrulous father who'd already taken aboard a damned sight more drink than was good for him ...

And now Mrs. Fuller was showing me her two downstairs sitting-rooms, in one of which it might be my privilege to sit of a weekday evening. Here I noticed a copy of The Channel Ports Advertiser spread out on one of the occasional tables. In a few weeks' time, I thought, its pages would be carrying articles written by myself. The room itself was extremely, well, pretty with rose-patterned wall-paper, chintz-covered sofa, and green felt carpet. Definitely not a place for a fellow to sprawl out comfortably, let alone have a smoke at the end of his working-day.

Time now to go upstairs. On the first floor were a bathroom and two bedrooms, the door of one of which was ajar. Mrs. Fuller's footsteps slowed down as we passed it, as if she half-wanted me to peek into it, which of course I did. It had an unmistakably masculine air, containing a tallboy, at least a dozen prints on the wall of Greek- and Roman-looking subjects, and a dressing table on which different-sized hairbrushes with tortoiseshell backs were neatly arrayed.


Excerpted from "The Stranger from the Sea"
by .
Copyright © 2019 Paul Binding.
Excerpted by permission of Abrams Books.
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.

Table of Contents

ONE I Find a New Home (I Don't Think), 11,
TWO At the Mercy of the Mercy Room, 29,
THREE Important Information Comes My Way, 51,
FOUR The W. T. Stead of Dengate, 65,
FIVE The Dead Can Speak — Or So it Seems, 89,
SIX What Hath Night to Do with Sleep?, 103,
SEVEN The Morning After, 111,
EIGHT Mercies of One Sort or Another, 119,
NINE Furzebank Ho, 127,
TEN Peregrine Falcon and a Rite of Passage, 151,
ELEVEN I Visit the Old Hole, 167,
TWELVE Friendship's Changing Faces, 193,
THIRTEEN Summer's Long Strong Spell, 227,
ONE "I'm Going to be a Sculptor", 291,
TWO My Legacy, 321,
Publication Note, 346,
Historical Note, 347,
Acknowledgments, 349,

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