We truly hope you’re able to get to a beach this summer. Remember beaches? The sea sparkling and glittering as far as the eye can see; bottles of Factor 50 coated in sand; the shrieks of laughter from those attempting to paddle board; the strange dichotomy of the scorching sun and the initial icy cold plunge as you wade into the ocean.
Beaches are wonderful, and good for the soul. But just in case the beach dream doesn’t come true for you this summer, we’ve got the next best thing: books. Specifically, books set by, on or near the sea — in other words, books that have the power to transport you to a seaside (or seabound) location far removed from murky, drizzly English rain and urban city streets. Plus, there’s another benefit of reading about the sea from the comfort of your garden is that there’s no chance of any sand getting in the pages of your book. Silver linings, gents.
Tender Is The Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald
As the seaside goes, you could do a lot worse than finding yourself at the French Riviera. And, happily, that’s where this internationally renowned novel is set: specifically, during the period between the First World War and the Wall Street Crash. Cue: wealthy Americans descending on the place in droves.
The novel centres on Dick Diver and his wife Nicole, who regularly entertain society’s elite at their Riviera villa. Before too long, we’re also introduced to actress Rosemary Hoyt, who is inexplicably drawn to the couple. Of course, things don’t go smoothly — cracks appear in the Divers’ marriage, and the vulnerabilities of all three characters become gradually apparent.
Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter
The setting of this novel is just as glamorous; we’ve just moved slightly further along the timeline, to the 1960s; and slightly further south, to Italy. The novel opens with an Italian innkeeper gazing out over the Ligurian Sea (what we wouldn’t give to be gazing out over the Ligurian Sea), who sees a woman on a boat, heading steadily in his direction. He learns that she is an American starlet, and that she doesn’t have long to live.
Throughout the novel, the story crosses time zones and locations; the innkeeper turns up at a Hollywood studio many years later, searching for the actress he met all those years ago; and we travel to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, too, among other locations. But the novel’s iconic opening chapter makes it a staple seaside novel, for anyone looking to escape to the ocean.
The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway
We assume you’ve heard of this one. But have you ever discovered what it’s actually about? If not, you wouldn’t be alone there; but let us rectify that situation for you.
For a start, this book won Hemingway the Nobel Prize for Literature. So far, so good. And you presumably don’t need us to tell you that the action takes place by the sea; so we’ll specify that it’s set in the Gulf Stream, off the coast of Havana. The narrative centres on a fisherman, Santiago, who has gone eighty-four days without catching a fish and is therefore deemed ‘unlucky’; Manolin, a young man trained by Santiago; and a fish. A marlin, to be precise. We won’t say any more here, because we wouldn’t want to spoil a classic for you — but suffice to say, this is a book in which the sea features pretty heavily.
Brighton Rock by Graham Greene
The name may have given the location away for this one; but allow us to assuage any doubts. This is a novel set in Brighton, yes; but as seaside novels go, this is one for those who can handle a bit of danger. It’s not a book for the faint-hearted, let’s put it that way.
The premise is a gang war raging through Brighton; and the narrative centres on 17-year old Pinkie: an antihero if ever there was one, and an up-and-coming gangster. When the unfortunate Charles Hale falls victim to Pinkie’s sociopathy, Pinkie is certain that he’ll get away with it; but will it be that simple? You’ll have to read the book to find out.
On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan
We’re staying put in the UK for this one; but we’ve journeyed west to Dorset, and we’ve time-travelled to summer 1962. Edward and Florence arrive at a hotel on the Dorset coast as a young couple, newly married just that morning.
Ian McEwan knows how to tug at the heartstrings, and this book is no exception. It’s a somewhat slimmer read than some of his other famous books, like Atonement; but it’s no less moving for its brevity. As Edward and Florence have their first supper as a married couple, we learn of the private worries, fears and concerns that each of them harbours about the night — and life — ahead; and it’s not long before their marital bliss comes tumbling down.
Evil Under The Sun by Agatha Christie
We couldn’t resist including this one. One of Christie’s most famous novels and featuring the indomitable Hercule Poirot as everyone’s favourite Belgian detective, it’s the ultimate seaside read, set in Devon (sometimes known as the English Riviera; we’ll take that) under the scorching sunshine.
When Hercule Poirot arrives at his quiet coastal hotel, he’s planning on having a much-needed ‘relax and restore’ sort of holiday: but that wouldn’t make for a very interesting book. He notices that fellow guest, actress Arlena Stuart, is causing more than a few unpleasant ripples among the other guests; and when she’s found dead on the beach, a murder mystery of the sort that only Christie can conceive is set in motion.
The Sea by John Banville
Winner of the 2005 Booker Prize, this is a breathtakingly beautiful novel of quietly epic proportions. It’s a novel of self-reflection, written in journal form by character Max Morden: a retired art historian who wishes to reconcile himself with the grief, loss and trauma he’s undergone previously.
The setting is a seaside village, where Morden once holidayed as a child (the village in question is a fictionalised version of Rosslare, where Banville and his family used to visit every summer when he was a child). Readers are privy to whatever thoughts Morden chooses to scribble in his journal at any one time; but certain unforgettable characters — characters who have influenced Morden’s life irrevocably — keep appearing, as though impossible to shake.
The Sea, The Sea by Iris Murdoch
Don’t worry, we haven’t just given up and stubbornly repeated the title of Banville’s novel again (twice); this is an entirely separate book (apparently variations on ‘the sea’ make for pretty good titles): and an excellent book it is, too. It’s Iris Murdoch, after all — we wouldn’t expect anything less.
It’s another Booker Prize winner (this time harking back to 1978); and it’s a true classic. Leading character, playwright Charles Arrowby, has decided to withdraw from the world completely. He takes himself off to a damp, desolate house by the sea (we’re a long way from the French Riviera in this one, that’s for sure). But his dream of total seclusion is shattered when he runs into his teenage love, Mary Hartley Fitch. As the memories crowd in, Charles becomes obsessed with Mary… and as to the rest? You’ll have to read it and see.
Saint X by Alexis Schaitkin
We’ve jetted off to the Caribbean for this one; but this is no mere beach read. This is a book of deep magnitude, which tells a powerful, moving story: and we’d say it’s a pretty essential read.
The titular Saint X is a luxury Caribbean resort. Siblings Claire (seven) and Alison (eighteen) are holidaying there: but on the last night of their vacation, Alison disappears. Several days later, her body is found; and two men, employees at the resort, are arrested. However, it’s not long before they’re released — the evidence was patchy, and the men were declared to be in the clear. Years later, a chance encounter sets Claire on a mission to discover the truth not only about who killed her sister, but about who her sister actually was.
Life Of Pi by Yann Martel
Ok, we’ve taken liberties with the word ‘seaside’ where this book is concerned; but it’s such a classic that we couldn’t bring ourselves to leave it out completely. That said, ‘seabound’ might be a better descriptor. ‘Seafaring’? ‘Upon the high seas’?
But down to business. If you aren’t familiar with this book’s premise, we don’t know where you’ve been all your life: but we’ll take pity on you. When a cargo ship tragically sinks in the Pacific Ocean, the only survivors found clinging to a lifeboat are sixteen-year-old Pi, a zebra, an orang-utan, a hyena and a Bengal tiger. Pi manages to survive for 227 days before washing up on a Mexican beach: and the novel remains one of the most famous philosophical novels ever written.
Looking for more literary inspiration? Well, these are the books we’re most excited to read this year…
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