Review: The Herring Man by Cyril James Morris
‘Stories should not die…They ought to be remembered by someone, somewhere, somehow.’
And so we enter the solitary world of Gwyn Evans, a lonely, grief stricken old man, who is burdened with guilt and never speaks following a tragic event years previously. He spends his days mending and making nets with a carved walrus tusk needle, which has a story of its own.
He stores the nets in groups of seven in his grandfather’s old workshop, which is a treasure chest full of tools needed for boat building, and other equipment such as lead weights, fairleads, and oil lamps.
His grandfather, Samuel Evans, was known locally as Sam the Herring Man, and before he became a fisherman, was a sailor who’d sailed around the seven seas. On his return, he would tell tales of where he’d been and what he’d seen, passing on his knowledge to his family in the form of stories and sketches.
Gwyn realises he is the only one left to tell these tales, so he manages to tell a story in his cottage in the hope that the memory of it would remain in the fabric of the house so it might be found one day in the future.
He becomes aware of a young boy staring at a boat in his garden, a boat that his son had made, now unused and uncared for, and one day the boy asks if he can come and look at it. A friendship begins between the old man and the fatherless boy, the boy seeing Gwyn as the father he never had.
He asks questions about the boat and the reason behind the herring painted on it, and Gwyn is able at last to speak to someone else and tells him the memories and stories he was so desperate to share.
He tells tales of Grandfather’s first trip across the Atlantic, through the Sargasso sea, past ‘…great rafts of coloured seaweeds in reds, yellows, greens, blues, pinks and browns…’ then landing on Nantucket Island, before following the coastline of South America, where the Amazon’s muddy rivers were ‘…sluicing the sea with sediment and nutrients washed from the great rainforests of Brazil…’ then followed an albatross through the Magellan Straits to the Pacific Ocean after dreaming about one.
Riddle of penance
As the story unfolds, the boy is left with a quest to find out the truth of Gwyn’s own story, and to resolve the riddle of penance he had given himself as the result of the tragedy.
The Herring Man is a poignant modern-day fable, a treasure chest of its own, overflowing with lyrical descriptions and images, in sketches and in words. There are comparisons of spider’s webs with fishing nets; silver tubes of herrings, phosphorescent seas, and whales with ‘mouths like Fingal’s cave’.
This delightful tale is one of loss and redemption and has many elements of a quest – the boy goes on a journey to discover and solve a riddle, with an improvement in self-knowledge on the way.
I enjoyed the references to dreams and albatrosses; the number seven and rainbows; the importance of language in poems and songs; the blue of the boat and the sea and the box with CRAN written on it; the subtle hints of what might come.
The author has an obvious knowledge about sailing, fishing and the ocean. He threads and weaves it into the story, which, just like the sheet-bend knots in the fishing nets, binds everything together and captures and pulls you in, emphasised by his subtle sketches, which ripple their allure across the page.
A note must also be made about the beautiful book cover, which makes you want to dive in and discover what secrets lie beneath the blue of the waves.
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