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Book Review: The Language Of The Sea by James Macmanus

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The Language Of The Sea poses an interesting question: do you speak Seal? Before the sub-bridge dwellers among you answer “yes” for the fun of it, I shall go ahead and answer that none of us do. It is interest in this and other questions that drive the principle character to do the things he does as an academic over the course of the novel.

Anyone thinking this is a non-fiction book about the unanswered questions of the sea would be half-right. It is for this reason, I suppose, that they attached the annoying subtitle ‘A Novel’ to the book (an autobiographical equivalent would be ‘my story’ or ‘my journey’). It features factual data and reference to real world phenomena (including what I suspect is a reference to the Bloop), wrapped up in a semi-fictional novel about an academic having marriage problems while turning into a seal (to give you an extremely condensed version of this 284-page epic).

The academic in question is one Leo Kemp, a slightly crazy teacher who is regarded as a bit anti-establishment, which has been known to get him in trouble with the Institute he works for. After an article describing Hoover the talking seal (and slamming the scientific world for not doing more investigating into such matters; I see why they didn’t as it’s no more impressive than a parrot), he gets fired by the Institute and decides to take his students out on one last field trip, during which he gets thrown overboard and finds himself isolated on an island with a seal colony. 

There’s the usual sources of conflict (well, for stories like this) between the protagonist and his wife (seen from separate sides due to their almost book-long separation), such as a dead son (a back story that I found it hard to take seriously, due to memories of Heavy Rain and “pressing X to Jason”), poor choice of living locale and extra-marital affairs. I must confess that these elements of back story served to make the characters (especially the wife Margot but Leo has his faults too, being too self-centered among them) rather unlikable, considering we spend most of the novel seeing things through their eyes. 

The idea for The Language Of The Sea apparently stems from an ongoing fantasy the author had when he was a child. From there, he researched into topics of debate and mysteries of the ocean in order to write this book. The air of believability about it does enhance the book in a way (although using real world product names such as Blackberry can make it seem like “Product Placement: The Book” on occasion), and it is always nice to see when somebody puts the effort into the work and research. It does annoy me when it turns into an agenda for the author, however on this occasion it happens to be an agenda I agree with — the focus of science on understanding the mysteries around us rather than growing complacent — so I’ll give it a pass on this occasion.  

Incidentally, I wouldn’t be surprised if the language of the sea (or the seals, which is what the title actually means) turns out to be Mandarin Chinese when scientists get around to translating it. It is the world’s most dominant language, after all.

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About Scott Varnham