After four years’ worth of a novel-in-progress is stolen from her London flat (an experience likened to an “early miscarriage”), Tabitha Lasley decides to leave her magazine job and her boyfriend to travel to Aberdeen, ostensibly to write about the men who work the oil rigs in the North Sea.
Sea State is the result of this mission; a mixture of journalism, chronicling the sociological, financial and more immediately physical issues faced by the men (the rigs are, predictably, death traps, poorly maintained by the oil companies), as well as the effect this work has on their wives, families and the wider society.
It’s also a highly personal account of living on the fringes of one’s own life, in what could be described as a prolonged moment of crisis (while also being, regularly, laugh-out-loud-funny). Lasley spends her days in Aberdeen trawling through bars, hoping to find men to interview. By the end, her alcohol consumption has increased exponentially, her skin is terrible, and she’s fallen in and out of love with the first (married) man she speaks to.
What sets Lasley apart as a genuinely exceptional writer is her ability to first spot, and then effectively relay, the small yet defining details of a person, scene or experience. She alights on the particular hardness of an erection, the softness of taut skin below a ribcage, the garbled mind on pills, or the fear that can suddenly grip a woman, walking home alone.
Her eye for usually imperceptible minutiae is especially sharp when it comes to the physical and linguistic cues that pass between the sexes, along with the inexorable conditions of their interrelations.
“The nature of this work was making me see what it must be like for them. Going up to groups, identifying the most receptive, inveigling your way in, uncaring of what the majority wants. Girls are taught to respond to the subtlest social cues, to beat a retreat at the first hint of furrowed brow or crossed arms; boys to develop a benign tone deafness for the very same signals.”
Sea State is contemporary writing at its finest, without any hint of effort, egoism or pretentiousness on Lasley’s part. She is an astoundingly good writer, and this is an astoundingly good book.