Around the North Sea in 7 books
The North Sea's tough and cold quality has inspired works by prolific authors and artists all over the world, including some Dutch ones. Evgeniya Lupova-Henry from Liber Sum Books proposes seven great reads that showcase the region's rich cultural heritage and history.
One of the great things about living in the Netherlands is being near the sea. Sure, the North Sea in particular doesn’t always bring pleasant weather, as you know if you’ve already cycled against the wind and rain. However, this cold and grey sea has been a source of inspiration to many artists and writers in the countries surrounding it. Here are some great books that pay tribute to this region.
The Edge of the World by Michael Pye
What if not the Roman Empire but the Lowlands were at the heart of Europe’s development in the Middle Ages? In The Edge of the World, Michael Pye sets out to answer this question and sheds light on the North Sea region’s lesser-known (and somewhat foggy) history. He rather convincingly claims that people owe a great deal to the Vikings, Frisians, or the beguines of mediaeval Flanders, who largely contributed to shaping the world of today.
Pye combines sound research and great storytelling and invites you to re-think the role of the North Sea region in shaping Western society.
You Have Me to Love by Jaap Robben
This multi-award-winning novel by Jaap Robben - a Dutch poet, playwright, and author of children’s books - is a coming-of-age story that explores the not-so-romantic side of living on a remote island. Located somewhere off the coast of Norway, the fictional island is home to a tiny community, where its very few inhabitants are exposed to rough weather and lack of socialisation.
This somewhat dark and eerie book explores the psychological strain and mental issues the protagonists face living on a secluded island.
The Sea, the Sea by Iris Murdoch
The 1978 Booker Prize-winning “The Sea, the Sea” by Iris Murdoch offers a very different take on life by the sea. The novel follows a retired theatre director who “leaves it all” and moves to a secluded house on the coast. Living as a hermit, he decides to take pleasure in the simple things - food, daily swimming in the sea and writing.
That is, until he comes across his first love, now in her 60s, married, and living just around the corner … And this is where the plot starts taking unexpected twists (don’t worry - no spoilers!). This funny, engaging, and easy-flowing book is a marvellous character study, rife with black humour and observations of human vanity, egotism, and self-delusion. And it might be just what you need if you are also entertaining a dream of moving, one day, to a secluded place somewhere by the sea …
Image credit: Etienne Henry
The Silver Darlings by Neil M. Gunn
First published in 1941, “The Silver Darlings” has never gone out of print and is one of the most successful novels of Neil Gunn, an acclaimed Scottish writer. The story is set in the north of Scotland during the herring fishing boom. Following the lives of herring fishermen and their families, Gunn paints very accurate, warm, and compassionate portraits of his protagonists.
This novel will transport you to a different setting and draw a compelling and broad picture of the life of remote fishing communities that depended on the sea for their survival.
The Dark Blue Winter Overcoat by Sjón and Ted Hodgkinson (Eds.)
In this book, you will find 18 funny, creepy, weird, playful, and magic stories by authors from various Nordic countries, from Iceland to the Faroe Islands, Denmark, Norway, and Greenland. If what you currently know about the Nordic region amounts to the cosy concept of hygge and noir thrillers, this book will definitely take you beyond these clichés.
As one of its editors, Ted Hodgkinson, says, “We wanted to show the ripples on the surface of Nordic life.” (Oh, and here is a sea reference for you!)
A Line in the World by Dorthe Nors
Dorthe Nors is a Danish writer whose fiction has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize. In this travelogue, she describes her journey to her native Jutland and its coastal villages. The book is divided into 14 essays, each of which focuses on a different section of the North Sea coast. Nors intertwines the stories of her youth, growing up amongst these windswept landscapes, and the history of the region, from its Viking legacy to the Nazi occupation.
Offering a rare glimpse into this region, its culture, rituals, and traditions, this book is also a meditation on how our psyche is shaped by the geographies we inhabit.
North Sea: A Visual Anthology by James Attlee (Ed.)
If you are more into visual arts, you may enjoy this fantastic visual exploration of the North Sea in all its manifestations. Bringing together contemporary and vintage photography, the book showcases the North Sea coastline and draws portraits of the people who sail on this sea and those who live by it. Some photographs are accompanied by essays or poems, making this book truly an artistic tribute to the North Sea.
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