The Lonely Sea

Unlike all the novels reviewed here, The Lonely Sea is an amalgam of fiction and nonfiction. It combines a collection of true naval-warfare tales Alistair MacLean wrote in 1960 for the Glasgow Sunday Herald with a group of short stories built around maritime action. Included is "The Dileas", MacLean's winning entry in the Herald's 1954 short-story competition, which launched his professional writing career. Given the massive difference between MacLean's accounts of harrowing naval battles and his mostly whimsical creative pieces in The Lonely Sea, I am separating my reactions into two groupings (below).


WWII Naval Encounters

Anyone who has read H.M.S. Ulysses knows that Alistair MacLean describes naval warfare starkly, pulling no punches and softening no blows. Such is also the case in this book's set of naval battle tales. However, his gripping scenes of death, destruction, and cruelty are leavened by glowing descriptions of courage and heroism. A typical account features German warships attacking unsuspecting or overmatched Allied craft, which carry refugees, prisoners, or even children, and are led by brave and ingenious yet often doomed officers. Amid all these defeats and tragedies, the story of how the British Navy sank the dreaded Bismarck (this book's longest piece) provides some relief. Sometimes, MacLean blames the Germans for inhumane actions; in one case, though, he actually claims that incompetence by high-ranking British officials led to tragedy. Throughout his dramatized reports, as ships and their passengers are mercilessly hammered by bombs, shells, and torpedoes, it's sometimes hard — but very comforting — to remember that the Allies eventually won this war. First-person accounts by survivors of some of these confrontations add a sorely needed human angle to these brutal yet fascinating retellings.


Short Fiction

Interspersed with the battle descriptions are half a dozen short fictional tales, with sailors and/or boats playing a large role in each. "The Dileas" is interesting as a first taste of MacLean's unique style, though the reader must be ready to confront some Gaelic terms and spellings. The other short stories generally lack gravitas; in some cases, it seems like MacLean had an idea that amused him, so he dashed off a quick tale about it, leaving the plot and characters largely undeveloped. If you're used to reading novel-length MacLeans, these stories will feel familiar but not terribly satisfying. As stylistic exercises, though, they're worth a look by any Alistair MacLean fan.



While the naval battles and the stabs at short fiction are an odd coupling — and the latter often fail to impress — The Lonely Sea is still a worthwhile read. (MacLean fans will also find value in the final chapter, "Alistair MacLean on the Rewards and Responsibilities of Success," in which the master himself offers insights into his writing career, his writing habits, his responsibility toward those who buy his books [but not toward book critics], and other aspects of his philosophy and psyche.)



 (7 out of 10)