Book Review: The Wave

Three years ago, I read a book called The Devil's Teeth: A True Story of Obsession and Survival Among America's Great White Sharks by Susan Casey and I've just spent a good twenty minutes trying to find the post I wrote about it. Because it was an amazing book and I'm sure I would've posted a review of it, but apparently not. Huh. Anyway, read it. It's very, very good.

Casey has just published another book, this one also taking place in the aquatic realm. The Wave: In Pursuit of the Rogues, Freaks and Giants of the Ocean is about just that. Giant waves. It is also about quite a bit more. Anchored (!) by sections about surfing, more specifically Laird Hamilton, his friends and tow surfing, it is an exploration of really big waves. What creates them, what they can do and what you can do on them.

The Wave starts on board the RRS Discovery off the coast of Scotland in February 2000. Discovery is a research vessel and it was expected to be a normal venture into the North Sea. And then a bad storm happened, worse than what normally populates the North Sea in winter - and it can get pretty bad there - and for days, giant waves pummeled the ship. Somehow, through luck and skill, the ship made it home and the scientists later found out that all the instruments had functioned during the storm, measuring everything that happened. And this is how giant waves, previously thought to be legends, mythical tales unsupported by physics, were proven to exist.

How big does a wave have to be a giant wave? Anywhere from 60 feet and up past 100 feet. This is already enough to make me never want to go near water again and you know how much I like the ocean, but reading this book tugged at me. In an interview (video here), Casey said that she "wanted to write about the most powerful force in nature through the eyes of the people who understood the most." This means that she talked to the man - Laird Hamilton - who invented tow surfing and traveled around with him and his gang of big wave surfers. It means that Casey talked to scientists who study waves, to the salvagers who try to help ships caught in storms where the waves take over, putting the ship, its cargo and its crew in peril and to the insurance company Lloyd's of London that ensures everything maritime. As well as all kinds of weird things, but no longer two-headed albino rattlesnakes, because the last time they did, tragedy struck, described in the Lloyd's annals as "an apparent disagreement between the heads had fatal consequences." The book also contains a fascinating look at big wave history, recounting stories from the 1700s to the present about mysteriously disappearing ships (I'm never going on a cruise), about a native woman out collecting berries coming home to find her entire village razed to the ground, the dead hanging in the branches of trees and the 1958 tsunami in Lituya Bay, Alaska that measured upwards of 1700 feet. And that's the point where I (briefly) persuaded myself I'd never go near saltwater again. Especially as the photos in the middle of the book cover the gamut from ships breaking up in storms, to big waves to the remains of villages in the aftermath (for an idea, check out the video in this post on Gizmodo. Whoa, Nellie…)

I love Susan Casey's writing. She obviously has a deep love of the ocean and has a gift for painting with words, painting a picture so clearly that you can smell the salt in the air and feel the spray on your face. I have to admit that when I first started this book, I thought the tow surfers were certifiably insane, but as we follow the surfers in their private lives and traveling around the world to surf the big waves, you begin to see the point. Casey takes us on trips to different spots known for generating giant waves - like Mavericks in California and Jaws off Maui - and we learn, again through the surfers, how every place creates a different wave, that waves have different characters and you start to get it, start to understand through her description of the waves that they are living, breathing organisms, one mood being different from the next. And despite the insanity, at the end of the book, I almost wanted to go big wave surfing myself. Almost. I don't quite have enough wanton disregard for my own safety to do so (and besides, water is bad for the electronics on my wheelchair), but I very much want to go see it from the shore.

Inevitably, the book also talks about climate change. As our climate changes and the planet heats up, it is creating more extreme weather and that means more giant waves. It means that without taking this into consideration when we build ships, oil platforms and coastal settlements, we are pretty insane ourselves. And throughout the book, reading about the big wave surfers, it became so obvious that these people - questionable mental stability and all - have more understanding and respect for nature, for the ocean than the rest of us. They are up close and personal, connected to the water in a way the rest of us aren't and so are the scientists who study waves and the changes in the ocean. It’d be a good idea to listen to them, as well as to them, because he we don't, we're going to wake up one morning a whole lot closer to the water than we currently are. Obviously, I don't doubt that climate change is real, but this book had a way of presenting the evidence that might knock a few bricks off of the wall of even the staunchest climate change denier. As one of the scientists Casey interviewed said, "if we're proven right, it's too late." Good enough argument to have a safety net, I think.

I only had one minor quibble and that was wanting to know more about women who surf the big waves Casey – herself a surfer - gets there, but not until you're about three quarters through the book and then only briefly. But the book focuses on a specific group of surfers and they're all men, so in a way, when and where big wave female surfers appear in the book make sense - they get there when it's time. Still, I would like to know more. Perhaps she's saving it for the next book

None of my reviews are done until I get to the narrator and The Wave is narrated by a truly gifted reader, Kirsten Potter. Her use of inflection and nuance lent an added layer of emotion to what was already fantastic writing, taking this one into that rare place where the whole is more than the sum of its parts. When the parts are as good as this, it is a wonderful trip. I want to read this book again and only knowing that it'll be better in about a year or so keeps me from starting over on page 1 right now.

Do yourself a favor. Go on an adventure: buy this book.


AlisonH said…
I imagine that Alaskan tsunami had to have been after the huge (a ten-something!) earthquake they had there--which one of my husband's co-workers lived through as a kid.  Gives new meaning to waving hell-o.
Jocelyn said…
You've sold me.  Calling the bookstore as soon as they're open...  I am actually on the mailng list for Mavericks - someday I'm going to cancel class, pack the kids, and head up there to see it happen...