HER WORLD FELL TO PIECES.
FROM THE BONES SHE BUILT A NEW LIFE.
Ruth lives in the heart of the city. Working, drinking, falling in love: the rhythm of her vivid and complicated life is set against a background hum of darkening news reports from which she deliberately turns away.
When a new romance becomes claustrophobic, Ruth chooses to leave behind the failing relationship, but also her beloved friends and family, and travels to the other side of the world in pursuit of her dream life working with whales in New Zealand.
But when Ruth arrives, the news cycle she has been ignoring for so long is now the new reality. Far from home and with no real hope of survival, she finds herself climbing into the mouth of a beached whale alongside a stranger. When she emerges, it is to a landscape that bears no relation to the world they knew before.
When all has been razed to the ground, what does it mean to build a life?
The Stranding is a story about the hope that can remain even when the world is changed beyond recognition.
Since I first heard about this book, I’ve had a feeling it was one for me. I was thrilled, therefore, to win a proof copy on Twitter, and since this month I’ve been trying to do more ‘mood reading’ and be less rigid about my TBR, when I got the urge to read The Stranding, I happily indulged myself.
I was not disappointed. This is a gloriously original book, a story that takes you on a proper journey, that immerses you in its characters and language and its wonderfully compelling dual structure. I read it in one sitting, staying up far too late, and I regret nothing.
There are a lot of clever things about this book. It is unexpected in a lot of ways – from the intense contrast between Ruth’s Before life in London and her life on the beach in New Zealand with Nik, highlighted by the alternating chapters, to the way Ruth is presented as a character. She is great – she’s flawed and indecisive and she makes mistakes, she’s so real and vivid, even a more conventional narrative with her at the centre going about her life and struggling to work out what she wants would be well worth reading. There is a lot going on in London, with (horrible) Alex’s gaslighting of Ruth, her own inability to be honest in her relationships and friendships, her itchy feet and longing to escape. But Sawyer offers us SO much more than this – the horrific global incident that changes everything is also a catalyst for a new way of life for Ruth, and the story mode changes from contemporary woman-in-the-city to something much more profound, apocryphal even. I was deeply moved by the New Zealand-set sections of the book, all the more so because of how skilfully they are interwoven with the more conventional narrative. It is just so well done.
I can’t bang on too much about my favourite characters and scenes, because a lot of the joy is in discovering these for yourself as you read, and I am not about to spoil this gorgeous book for anyone. I’ll content myself with saying that as the story progressed, I became more and more attached to the characters, more invested in their future, to the point where the closing pages were an extremely emotional experience. Sawyer writes beautifully, and has an uncanny ability to marry humour with wisdom, levity with truth. There are powerful symbols and almost biblical overtones in some of the passages, but it is all delivered with a leavening touch of down-to-earthness (I think the Kiwi slang helps a lot with this!). At times I was reminded of Lucy Irvine’s non-fiction book Castaway, which I read years ago, but which really stayed with me as a vivid portrayal of what survival means on a day to day basis; everything about Ruth and Nik’s struggle to survive feels absolutely authentic and real.
There is a resonance to this story that really touched me – although not (quite) comparable to the apocalypse, this past year has been hard on all of us, and I think there has been, for some of us, a reassessment of what is really important. This may sound trite, but in my own life this has had very real consequences in terms of the decisions we’ve made as a family recently, and something in The Stranding really struck a chord with me. The pandemic has not stripped away the trappings of our lives to such a dramatic extent as the disaster that befalls the characters in Sawyer’s book, but maybe it has taught some of us to re-examine our priorities. There is nothing didactic about this novel, but I think there is a gentle, beautiful lesson in it, about family, about love, and about nature.
The Stranding by Kate Sawyer is out on 24th June from Coronet Books and is available to pre-order here.