Caroline Spalding, Features Correspondent
Review: The Stranding By Kate SawyerThe Stranding
is the exceptional debut novel by Kate Sawyer, which begins with the end, but then explores what happens thereafter. Whilst this is a story that launches from an apocalypse, the overriding focus is on a theme of hope and human connection. We can relate to the characters we meet, despite not knowing what it would be to share their reality; they are grounded, resilient and appear able to place value only in what truly matters to them.
The vivid narrative perhaps draws on Sawyer’s previous experience as an actor and producer: her believable scenarios are conveyed in a concise, but powerful and graphic manner. We are drawn into her characters’ world; we understand and we empathise. The narrative does not waste time with unnecessary, polysyllabic descriptive passages: the author’s vision is simply, yet evocatively translated to each page, on which we are but another character. It is most certainly not a book about an apocalypse; instead, it is a story about humanity, about relationships, about our ingrained need to survive, and how we respond and retain hope in a world where there are no longer any answers.
Ruth, the central protagonist, is wholly relatable: she is young, perhaps hedonistic, or maybe she's just seeking distraction, denying the reality of her quotidian. The chapters alternate between the present and the past, through which we uncover Ruth's backstory, discovering how she has become the woman she is now. In the present we bear witness to her growth and how she develops in her new reality. We come to realise that above all, the character we meet at the start of the book is a young woman who is lost – searching for an answer, but simultaneously unsure of the question.
The novel opens with a prologue, capturing the key themes that percolate through the novel - the before and the after, the comfort in kinship, in love, the memories we recall in waking and in dreams, through which we also seek escapism and sanctuary, the hope that we will sustain.
Kate Sawyer. Image by Nick Dawes.
We meet Ruth on a beach in New Zealand. She is dumbstruck in awe and shock at a beached whale she has travelled far to see. She feels a connection, a desperate need to save the creature, whilst her fruitless endeavours to do so are observed by Nik, who hasn't much sympathy. Even if something could be done for the whale, Nik knows there is little point. What's coming is coming; he informs us that the end is imminent, but in what form we are not told. Ruth falls to her knees as the whale takes its final breath, she watches the life disappear from its eyes. Her sorrow is a recognition of all she has lost and an acknowledgment that, for her also, this may be the end of the road.
However, Ruth and Nik survive by taking sanctuary inside the mouth of the whale; two strangers, forced into an embrace. On waking, the world is not as it was. And now, the question is what's next?
We follow their story of survival, and the bond that slowly develops between the two. They slowly learn to trust, even to like one another, and we follow their progress, their triumphs, their losses. Ruth does recall her past, but it is not a lament, more a weary acknowledgement of the way she once was, the things she wished she had said or done, the things she'd rather she hadn't. We grow closer to her, we recognise her fragility, we witness her developing strength and tenacity. Revisiting her past, we meet her friends, her family, her lovers; we learn her weaknesses, her faults, and ultimately we discover what drove her to that New Zealand beach.
Throughout the novel we are gripped by the narrative, we are caught up in these characters’ reality. Of course, there are questions left unanswered, and our scope of vision is limited to the horizon Ruth and Nik look out on. But we turn the pages because we want to know what will become of the protagonists; after all, the narrative has rendered them so alive in our imaginations, and actually, we do care what will happen.
is uplifting and thoroughly compelling; a debut novel that makes an impact, and one that leaves the reader in eager anticipation of Sawyer’s next.
is published 24th June by Coronet, an imprint of Hodder & Stoughton