‘Secrets of the Sea’ by Nicholas Shakespeare

Special to The Times

FOR THOSE of us who don’t expect to travel soon to Tasmania, reading Nicholas Shakespeare’s “Secrets of the Sea” is a decent alternative. His fifth novel draws much of its allure from its wild setting on this remote Australian island at the bottom of the world (next stop: the polar ice cap), and the artful ways in which he infuses his narrative with Tasmanian flora, fauna and lore.

Shakespeare, a sharp-eyed journalist, novelist, literary critic, biographer (of peripatetic Bruce Chatwin) and author of a history of the former British penal colony, “In Tasmania,” is a knowing guide. His fictional backwater village of Wellington Point (population 327) on Tasmania’s southeast coast is vulnerable, even on the calmest day, to “fierce sudden winds that gusted up without warning, driving the surface of the sea into the bay and giving rise to extreme tides and flooding.” Not a bad metaphor for the marriage between Alex Dove and Merridy Bowman that is at the heart of the novel.

Alex is the only child of a British couple who left Cumbria shortly after World War II for a better life on an isolated farm on Oyster Bay and ended up disappointed. His father fills his empty gin bottles with intricate model ships. His mother haunts antique shops. When Alex is 11, the two are killed backing out of their driveway, victims of a speeding logging truck. Alex is hustled back to England for boarding school, then university.

After graduating from Oxford, he comes back to Wellington Point for a quick visit and is gob-smacked by the view of the sea from his land. “I’d forgotten how to look at land or sky or sea,” he tells Merridy. He vows to revive the failing Moulting Lagoon Farm. And he masters his father’s art, building a minuscule five-masted clipper inside a 1,000-watt lightbulb and a replica of the Otago, the bark that was Joseph Conrad’s only command. Merridy has dropped out of university at Melbourne and come with her parents to Wellington Point. When Alex first sees her, he thinks of the white-throated needletail swifts his father once told him spent most of their lives in the air, feeding, sleeping, even mating on the wing, coming to ground only to nest.

His attraction deepens when he learns Merridy has an undertow of family tragedy beyond the obvious. Merridy’s beloved older brother disappeared on his seventh birthday. A three-day search of the bush turned up nothing but his straw hat. This being Tasmania, his family fears not only kidnappers but other sorts of monsters. He might have been eaten by a feral pig, or a Tasmanian devil (a carnivorous marsupial); or “a giant squid hunting for orange roughy”; or even the sort of gigantic mollusk that had once washed ashore.

Merridy marries Alex. Sixteen years pass. The two remain childless and the passion cools. He tends his farm, she establishes a successful oyster farm. At 36, she realizes she had never felt so clear-headed and confident that her “stripe of grief” had been removed. She gazes across the bay, “the same uneventful and endless stretch of sea that her marriage had become” and realizes she is “uncomplicatedly content.”

Shakespeare’s “The Dancer Upstairs,” inspired by the search for the leader of Peru’s “Shining Path” guerrillas, was a politically sophisticated detective story wrapped around a nuanced love story, all driven by a tautly calibrated plot line. By contrast, the first half of “Secrets of the Sea,” which covers 16 years, seems at first long on nuance and short on tension. Midway through, a tempest, a shipwreck and a mysterious castaway bring the narrative to a furious boil that Shakespeare maintains for the rest of the novel.

A brigantine, the replica of the first ship bringing the first European settlers to the island 200 years before, is caught in a sudden southeasterly storm. Risking their lives, Alex and Merridy pull a young man, Kish, out of the sea. Kish is a suburban Sydney street tough who is guilty of undisclosed aberrant behavior. His probation officer allows him to stay on for several months. Alex sees Kish as a surrogate son who can help him on the farm; Merridy as a replacement for her brother, and possibly more.

Kish disrupts the equilibrium of Moulting Lagoon Farm. The storm that thrust him into their lives has wreaked havoc on land and sea, disclosing answers to mysteries that have haunted both Alex and Merridy. All the pieces in place, Shakespeare, a master craftsman, pulls the narrative string and his beguiling story is complete, as intricate and miraculous as a ship in a bottle.

Jane Ciabattari, author of the short story collection “Stealing the Fire,” is president of the National Book Critics Circle.

Secrets of the Sea
A Novel
Nicholas Shakespeare
Ecco/HarperPerennial: 402 pp., $14.95 paper