Monday, March 09, 2009

Nicholas Monsarrat - The Cruel Sea

Everyone should have at least one favourite novel that they return to year after year. One of mine is Nicholas Monsarrat's The Cruel Sea.

The novel deals with the terrors and horrors of the Atlantic conflict in World War II - specifically, the experiences of a group of tremendously inexperienced men sailing an escort ship in protection of the convoys bringing supplies to the UK from Canada and the US. In this sense, the novel is like many others that came out of the Second World War - written by men who had served in the armed services, had seen action and perhaps used the process of putting the stories down on paper, as a method of dealing with their memories.

What makes The Cruel Sea more than just a war novel, is the intensely detailed portraits of the men and women involved. You know these people intimately. You follow them as they stay up for hours on end, because the gales are so strong they can't sleep. You stand next to them on the bridge as they scan the horizon for U-boats. You're with them most painfully, as they rescue wounded sailors and desperately try to comfort dying men.

But, and this is what makes the novel truely brilliant, you are most with them when they die. No one can comprehend war who hasn't seen it. The suffering of the victims of conflict is usually reduced to numbers - 3 dead in Iraq, 2 wounded in Afghanistan. Monsarrat creates these fully rounded characters - hurt by cheating wives, worried about the coming baby, scared of the sexually transmitted disease they've contracted - and their sudden and painful death brings the reality of conflict to the reader like a slap in the face.

This isn't an anti-war novel like Johnnny Got His Gun. But it's a novel that is about the reality of war and as such, it should be read by everyone, particularly those who think war is a game, or those who can play so easily with other men's lives.

Related Reviews

Monsarrat - Three Corvettes


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the recommendation - not the sort of book I'd normally think of reading, but your review is quite compelling. And I've now read a few others and it seems as if nobody has a bad word to say about the book. So I might just give it a try!

Anonymous said...

I bought this recently, and this is oddly enough the second time I've seen it reviewed in about two weeks. The other review was also glowing. I must put it up my to be read pile.

Anonymous said...

Talking of favourite books, mine is also by Nicholas Monsarrat, but seems to be a lot well less known.
This is his fourth book (the first three I believe are long out of print) "This is the schoolroom" published in 1939, which the author claims is partly autobiographilcal.
It covers a period through the thirties, and one young man's journey from being one of the pampered elite, through poverty, idealism, conflict, and in the end, self realisation.
As the original poster has said about "The Cruel Sea" the book paints intensely detailed portraits of the men and women involved. Absolutely brilliant, and I am very surprised that it hasn't come to be regarded as a classic, although I imagine that coming out in 1939 made it easy to overlook.