Margaret Drabble’s novel The Sea Lady (McClelland & Stewart) takes place on land, but it’s all about the sea. The story opens as Humphrey, an old man and eminent marine biologist, speeds along in a train toward Finsterness, England, where he has been invited to give a speech at a university. He wishes he had refused: this is the first time he's been to Finsterness since he was a boy and the place has some memories for him that he'd just as soon not dip into. Or maybe he longs to dip in, or even to submerge himself in them; maybe that's why he's going even though his throat hurts and he feels achey. Meanwhile, Ailsa, a flamboyant singer and actress about Humphrey's age, also prepares to make a presentation at Finsterness, where she too has a past.
By now the reader has settled in, willing to be carried along by the currents of memory and love and fate, in language rich with references to the sea. Humphrey mediates on "the ebb and flow of schools and disciplines and reputations"; he remembers a lover and a night during which he "drank the brine from her body," and later he "relives his entire life with her, like a drowning man." He tries to overcome ungenerous thoughts about a colleague that "lurk, fathoms deep," and even when he doesn't have a sore throat, "his eyes fill with water more easily these days." And so on—all so perfectly right that the watery words are imperceptible until one goes back and studies Drabble's language to see how she did it. Water is the element associated with dreams, feelings, the subconscious, the sea is soothing and healing, but it is also dangerous.
Drabble's imagery is reminiscent of her novel The Waterfall (1969), whose first sentence reads: “If I were drowning I couldn’t reach out a hand to save myself, so unwilling am I to set myself up against fate.”