‘I miss so many people’ The Starboard Sea – Amber Dermont


You never sail with one wind. Always with three. The true, the created, and the apparent wind; the father, son, and Holy Ghost. The true wind is the one that can’t be trusted. The true wind comes in strong from one direction, but then the boat cuts through the air and creates her own headwind in turn. The apparent wind is the sum of these two forces. A combination of natural gusts and the forward movement of the boat. The sails create their own airflow, constantly forcing the skipper to reevaluate the angle of travel. Handling the apparent wind requires finesse.

There are novels one feels are resoundingly of this world and there are those which strike one as inhabiting some fallen Arcadia. I imagine it is that tone alongside its setting in a late 80’s New England populated by troubled young moneyed characters that causes The Starboard Sea to be compared to The Secret History. Whereas in Tartt’s novel one feels transported into the world of myth and the Greek language, in Dermont’s our induction is into the world and language of sailing: of knots, winds, rigs, skippers, and crew. Both novels also contain terrible acts, grief, private sadness.

Chester picked up two coiled ends of rope and practiced the bowline knot I’d shown him. He tightened the knot and placed his hand inside the small loop. ‘So binding something together doesn’t make it any stronger.’

‘No,’ I said. ‘Not in the long run.’

In the wake of the suicide of his best friend and crew mate Cal, Jason Prosper arrives at Bellingham Academy, a renowned school for the hopeless offspring of America’s rich. After a sailing accident he decides to abandon allegiances and aim for anonymity: ‘I was through playing.’ Throughout sailing and the sea are ciphers for intense encounters, great joy, and utter desolation. The hurricane at the centre of the novel symbolises those terrible forces and heralds a darker and fallen world in which those one thought friends can do terrible things. Emphasising the connection with the sea, Jason shares a name with the leader of the Argonauts. More significantly, Prosper is but a letter’s breadth from the ruler of a recalcitrant storm-ringed island. Likewise, Cal recalls Caliban: both creatures of the sea. Aidan, the girl Jason comes to love tells him her name means ‘fire’: an element. In The Tempest Ariel is an elemental commanded by Prospero, and Aidan is indeed otherworldly in many respects.

One should not, however, overplay any straightforward parallel between The Starboard Sea and The Tempest. Dermont’s novel amounts in some ways to an inversion rather than a retelling. Jason singularly fails to manipulate those around him and is in thrall to his guilt over Cal’s death, whose name proves to be bitterly ironic. It is Aidan who begins to free him from that guilt, rather than Prospero liberating Ariel. However, as The Tempest is in part a story of the abandonment of magic and the reconciliation of a divided nature, so The Starboard Sea traces Jason’s loss of innocence and the hesitant healing of his tripartite soul: Jason, Cal, Aidan.

What made me like her? Her pain. Her mystery. I was drawn to her because she reminded me of Cal. I was drawn to her because she reminded me of myself. I couldn’t tell you what she saw in me. She certainly didn’t expect that I would add to her hurt. She could not have known the harm I’d bring.

As she explores the tortured sexuality, secrecy, and competition of her teenage characters, Dermont’s prose is gentle, freshwater flowing into a saltwater ocean, navigating the sands, avoiding cliché and inadvisable extended metaphors. To overextend that image, The Starboard Sea is a saltwater estuary: a delicate, perfectly judged sense of detail and quiet humour mingles with a sharper, colder current into which it must ultimately dissolve. It’s beautifully written if not particularly innovative; its depiction of honesty, pain, and betrayal sufficient motivation for thinking The Starboard Sea emerges from the bubble of its privileged characters to say something significant about grief and the nature of responsibility.

The storm had warmed the Atlantic, agitating a bloom of plankton. The entire bay lit up with phosphorescence, the water glowing from within, a blazing grand ballroom. With every lapping wave the light pulsed turquoise, then emerald. I loved this trick. Wanted to swim in the phosphorescence, even though I knew this particular type of plankton was toxic. By day the shore would be covered in a poisonous red tide. For the moment, though, it was as if the ocean had swallowed a swarm of fireflies. I felt Aidan’s kiss on my mouth.

The Starboard Sea is out now from Corsair.

My thanks to Corsair for this review copy.