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Sea Room: An Island Life in the Hebrides Paperback – November 10, 2015
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"Nicolson's chronicle is a fine book . . . Readers will be duly awed by his delicately layered story." -The New York Times Book Review
In 1937, Adam Nicolson's father answered a newspaper ad for a small cluster of three islands-The Shiants (Gaelic meaning "holy" or "enchanted")-which lie east of the Outer Hebrides of Scotland. Sheer black cliffs drop five hundred feet into the cold, dark, rip currents of the Minch, lounging seals crowd at their feet and thousands upon thousands of sea birds swarm overhead in the sky. Nicolson inherited the islands when he was twenty-one and in this spellbinding and luminous book, he recalls his keenly deep connection to the wild, windswept, and yet enchantingly beautiful property. Not merely a haven of solitude, the islands, with a centuries-old past haunted by restless ghosts and tales of ancient treasure, came to be for Nicolson his heartland and a "sea room"-a sailing term he uses to mean "the sense of enlargement that island life can give you."
In passionate, prismatic prose, Sea Room celebrates this extraordinary landscape, exploring Nicolson's complicated relationship to the paradoxes of island life and the wonder of revelatory engagement with our natural world.
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“Nicolson's chronicle is a fine book. Readers . . . will be duly awed by his delicately layered story.” ―Erica Sanders, The New York Times Book Review
“No other book has given me as rich a sense of what makes a small island so revelatory of our life on Earth.” ―London Review of Books
“A lovely biography of a place: the Shiants, in the Hebrides, are an island threesome of grass, wind, and birds that have had a long human presence and are sometimes the home of travel and environmental writer Nicolson . . . Rich with history and curiosity.” ―Kirkus Reviews
“An adventure story with Hemingway highs and is also unselfconscious, wonderfully idiosyncratic, and, above all, beautifully written.” ―Literary Review
About the Author
- Publisher : Picador; First Edition (November 10, 2015)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 416 pages
- ISBN-10 : 1250074959
- ISBN-13 : 978-1250074959
- Item Weight : 12.8 ounces
- Dimensions : 5.5 x 0.92 x 8.5 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #504,468 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- #95 in Coastal Ecosystems
- #491 in General Great Britain Travel Guides
- #2,139 in Traveler & Explorer Biographies
- Customer Reviews:
About the author
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“Sea Room” starts with a description of how Nicolson had a sea-worthy boat built for him to navigate out to his islands. Reading about the labors of the master-builder he employed is like a lesson in the zen of boat-building. It puts the feel of the wood in your bones as the boat takes shape. I only wish Nicolson would have included a glossary in this book, so the landlubber could easily catch up on the meaning of boat-related words such as “strake, pintle, gudgeon,” as well as on the meaning and pronunciation of many geological and place-name words encountered throughout the book. What's more, most of the pictures in this edition are small, grainy, and dim and don't help much to illustrate matters.
Nicolson goes on to recount the succession of people who inhabited the islands, including early Norse settlers, a religious hermit, missionaries and reformers sent to eliminate the semi-pagan ways of the residents, crofters (small farmers), shepherds, geologists, historians, and now the occasional tourist. Nicolson doesn't necessarily recount these waves of habitation and abandonment in strict chronological order, but instead weaves their narratives into a sort of hanging tapestry.
There is also a history of how these islands were geologically formed, through the interplay of magma eruptions and erosion over the ages. Nicolson resorts to one of his quirkier similes here when he describes the crimping in some of the giant shoreline rock columns as looking like the perm in Jean Harlowe's hair. People under 40 might be left all-at-sea by such allusions.
He also tells about both the wildlife and the domesticated life (mostly sheep) that occupy the island in seasonal shifts. Then he tells about some of the persistent negatives of the place. There are rats, rats, rats – and the incessant wind
This is generally such a literate, poetic reflection on the isolation and meditation that is possible in such a wild place as this – something like the classic “The Outermost House” - that I hate to make any criticisms. But just sometimes, Nicholson's earnestness slips into purple prose. His noticing of everything on the island and his imputation of mystic, historical importance to it seems a little bit self-congratulatory and self-promoting. “See how intensely I notice and feel everything!” Such ardency over every detail might begin to weigh a bit heavy on the reader.
One longs to just ignore something - take it for granted. I was reminded of being on an “Eat Your Way Through the Woods” hike on which our ultra-enthusiastic guide was extolling the tastiness and edibility of so many of the plants we passed. Someone finally called out, “Where is there a hamburger tree?” In the same way, when Nicolson waxes ultra-earnest over the deep, primordial significance of a rock he finds, a rebel reader might want to call out, “Let's play kick the stone down the road.!”
Or alternately, one might wish that Nicolson would cast his net of enthusiasm a little wider, perhaps to include more of the living people around him. When he expresses the hope that his son in turn will feel the urge to intimately know the islands and appreciatively come to understand their rhythms – when he hopes the boy will develop the same mystical bond with them that he feels, the same “odd, deep, distant attachment” to them – a reader might long to have the same sort of attentions from a spouse. But indeed, most spouses' enthusiasms, if there are any, are wrapped up in feeling the animism of some such inanimate other.
But this is a good, sea-worthy book that teaches a lot about a unique part of Scotland and that illustrates what riches mindfulness can bring a person.
N.B. - The web page here, for some reason, puts the book's length erroneously at 256 pages. My copy and those of other reviewers with different editions who mention the length all seem to have the correct page number: 391.
The middle of the book - especially compared with the poetic prose of the first chapters - is a bit weighted down for my tastes with geological, socio-economic and historical minutiae about these islands. It's all quite interesting at first. But, caveat lector, Nicholson does go on a bit. In fact, the middle of the book would serve quite well, I think, as the foundation for a doctoral dissertation.
But let me get on with what I loved about the book. Nicolson is a highly reflective, poetic and yet dogged writer who writes with a lovely relish about the desolate, frequently perilous beauty of these islands. He describes - better than I can - his instincts in life and writing beautifully:
"One of the reasons I loved the Shiants was that they were away from the world of definition.....I never think things through. I never have. I never envisage the end before I plunge into the beginning. I never clarify the whole. I bank on instinct, allowing my nose to sniff its way into the vacuum, trusting that somewhere or other, soon enough, out of the murk, something is bound to turn up."
He goes on to quote some lines from poet Denise Levertov:
The dog disdains on his way,
Keeps moving, changing
Pace and approach but
Not direction - every step an arrival."
He also mentions Emily Dickinson and quotes Yeats and Shelley. These are the sections I truly loved. Other reviewers have tended to dwell on the last chapter and the question of whether Nicolson should "own" the islands. The question is very much a non-starter for me. He should.
In his passage describing medieval solitaries, Nicolson writes:
"All the solitaries of the past have lived with that intense inner sociability. Their minds are peopled with taunters, seducers, advisors, supervisors, friends and companions. It is one of the tests of being alone: a crowd from whom there is no hiding."
It is the great wonder of the best parts of the book that the reflective Nicolson describes his own inner personae, but that also the reader meets actual people - fulfilling these same roles - whom Nicolson has encountered during his long enchantment with the Shiants.
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Vivid descriptions giving a strong sense of place, some accounts of the Clearances, a little archaeology and probably as much as you need to know about sheep, rats and gulls, or the perils of taking a small boat out on the Minch, or of dealing with the unwanted bureaucratic attentions of the RSPB.
Nowadays, with plenty of other food stuffs available, he wasn't starving!, killing a protected species is just horrible.
Book now in bin!
But a measure of any good book is whether it opens up further enquires. This one does. Using the internet and Wikipedia, I led on the read about some of the other remoter Hebridean islands, and using Ancestry.co.uk (I'm into family history), I also researched and read up on the Nicholson family and earlier generations through the 19th century - equally interesting, a touch of scandal here and there, and a totally different aspect of life!!
Adam Nicholson can count himself one of the luckiest people on the planet to have inherited the wild and savagely beautiful Shiant Islands.
Fortunately AN is hardly blase about his wonderful gift and has obviously burnt the midnight oil delving deep in every aspect of Shiant life.
What comes through is the sheer savage beauty of the islands. Wild in tooth and claw and the arena for some truly heartbreaking tales of love and loss.
The islands are not a place where dreams and fortunes are made. Rather they are a place of harsh reality and stuggle.
Death haunts the barren land and stormy seas surrounding the islands but in the midst of death,living breathing human beings have conspired to steal a living off the land and the sea.
Of course eventually,like gnats living on a Elephant, islanders are shaken off and the Shiants return to their lonely granduer.
It's a tribute to Adam Nicholson that he records the reality and doesn't water it down with roseate impressions.
I’d hope to have got the feeling of this remote Island life but sadly it left me glad that I had never experienced .
Find an interesting bit the author then goes off in a completely different direction and aim lost. There are some good bits and some of the turns of phrase have a poetic feel about them but it needed more photography and it’s one book I wish I had ordered from the local library or borrowed from a friend.