Sea yearnings

The Passages of Herman Melville, by Jay Parini, Canongate, RRP£9.99, 454 pages

Anyone who “actually read” his novels, Lizzie Melville says of her husband, Herman, would guess that he was unbalanced: walking the edges of life, peering into the abyss, taking his readers with him. Lizzie – independent and shrewish, with good reason given Herman’s wild moods and stormy temper – anchors this sympathetically imagined novel, while Herman, author of Moby-Dick, yearns to go to sea.

Parini cuts between the relative calm of Herman’s work as a customs officer, tallying foreign cargoes and salty tales on the Manhattan wharves, and the exhilaration of his voyages. After spending years aboard the whaler Acushnet, with its weak, pox-ridden captain, Herman jumps ship to live among sexually shameless cannibals before escaping with “narrative gold in his pocket”.

This assured and eloquent novel deftly navigates intense relationships, and fiery characters who weigh ambition and regret.

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