The Last Wave by Gillian Best
Reviewed by Timothy Niedermann
John, an elderly man, is confused. He cannot find his wife, Martha. His neighbour, Henry, tries to help, but John grows impatient with him. Finally, John decides where Martha must be, and he walks down to the stony beach of their town’s small harbour. Surely Martha will be swimming there, in the cold waters of the English Channel.
Since the age of ten, Martha has immersed herself in the sea, swimming far out, either parallel to the shore or straight out toward distant France, depending on the currents. In the water, she becomes a part of it and it, a part of her. For a decade after her marriage, though, she did not swim, deliberately choosing to focus on her husband, John, and child-rearing, but this could not last. The sea called her back. Nine times over the decades she has crossed the Channel. Other than that she has been a housewife, taking care of her husband and children in what has been to all appearances a traditional marriage in a quiet seaside town.
But the couple is becoming more and more isolated and alone. Years earlier, John brutally rejected their daughter Harriet after she told them she was in a relationship with a woman, Iris. They have not seen her since. Around the same time, Harriet’s brother, Iain, decamped to Australia. Now Martha and John are old. Martha has battled cancer, and John is struggling with dementia. His public behaviour is erratic and often offensive to others. It is impossible to tell when he will be mentally present or completely lost. Henry, their neighbour, becomes a watchful presence, a close source of help. Otherwise, their isolation increases with each passing day. And throughout Martha still swims in the sea, a strict regimen to break up her life’s confining routine.
When out of the blue, Myrtle, their teenaged granddaughter, appears, her defiant energy creates new momentum, upending some of the corrosive patterns that the other characters have fallen into, willingly or not, and allowing interaction to occur that otherwise would have been neglected or avoided.
Starting in the late 1940s and continuing to the present, different characters deliver their thoughts at various periods in the lives of John and Martha. The dominant voice is Martha, but she is joined by John, their children, their granddaughter Myrtle, Henry, and Iris. Each voice adds depth to the portrait of a devoted marriage, its trials, errors, and regrets.
A swimmer herself, author Gillian Best knows the sea well, and it is a constant presence in The Last Wave. Best uses the sea not for symbolism or allusion, however, but for emotion. The sea fills a very personal, essential emotional need in Martha’s life, and, through Martha, this comes to be felt by other characters, each in his or her way.
Best’s descriptive abilities are acute. She is able to convey to the reader the full passion of Martha’s swimming, from the physical sensations of the very act to the visceral release from the world on shore. Effective too is her description of dementia. John’s condition is portrayed thoroughly and accurately, but also sensitively, allowing his humanity to come through at the same time.
Physical decline, mental decline, insuperable regrets. Their weight pushes down harder on all of us with each passing year. In The Last Wave, Best has been able to create characters who can accept certain inevitabilities about their lives yet embrace the possibilities that life continues to present. A moving, impassioned book by a very talented, insightful writer.
The Last Wave is published by House of Anansi.