Prospect of death, desire and the beauty of the sea

Review: Vivien Horler

My Side of the Ocean, by Ron Irwin (Macmillan)

Whenever a shark attack is reported in the Cape Town press, the predator is almost always a 5m great white. How do they know this?

According to The Comprehensive Biology of Sharks and Rays, quoted at the start of this novel, there are over 440 known species of shark on the planet. The coastal waters of South Africa are home to over a quarter of them.

There’s a thought to take with you the next time you go swimming in False Bay.

But this book is set mainly in the tiny seaside suburb of Bakoven, just down Victoria Road from Clifton and Camps Bay. As Capetonians know, the Atlantic is bitterly cold there, and not known as a haven for sharks.

But My Side of the Ocean opens with a terrifying encounter between a big shark, probably a great white, and a swimmer and a surfer. The swimmer is Stella, who is in her mid-30s, an accomplished American artist and academic based at UCT, and who owns a house on the granite rocks above Bakoven.

The surfer, we later discover, is Ben, some years younger.

The two encounter each other in the waves one weekday afternoon, with Stella slightly irritated that this unknown man is paddling his board so close to her little inlet. But she then realises he is shouting at her, telling her to get out of the water.

“I saw a fin. Shark! A big one. It’s tracking you.”

She wonders if he has seen a dolphin – you don’t get sharks at Bakoven. But then she realises, from his movements in the water, that this man is familiar with the sea, is a good strong swimmer, and if he thinks he saw a shark he probably did.

She starts to swim hard for the beach, and begins to tremble.

And then the surfer rolls off his board into the water. He comes up spitting. “It rammed me,” he says, winded.

They go on, desperately swimming for the beach when a fin breaks the surface of the water in front of them. As Stella takes a ragged breath, she sees the shark’s eye, staring.

She is terrified her legs, flashing through the water, will be ripped from her body.

They reach the beach, shaking. (This is not a spoiler – it all happens in the first chapter.)

It is an extraordinarily dramatic chapter, and you think the rest of the novel will be something of an anti-climax. And yet it isn’t.

Stella’s husband Jack, an international financier, is closing down his business links to South Africa, telling her the country is toast. The couple is about to move back to New York. The house is on the market.

Stella, who takes both artistic inspiration and spiritual sustenance from the sea, can’t bear the thought of leaving her little home on the rocks. Yet Jack, busy in New York, is determined to go. The SA economy is junked, “totally junked”. Half of his investors aren’t even allowed to invest in the country any more, he tells Stella.

Stella hesitates. Plus Ben has been round. They have bonded over their near-death experience and start a passionate affair He’s young, free, a swimmer. Also beautiful.

Jack breezes back into town, causing something of a crisis. And then a terrible storm hits the Atlantic coast, and no one is sure that the old bungalow on the rocks can withstand such a devastating north-westerly gale.

The beauty and some of the ugly side of Cape Town is laid bare in this riveting novel. The mountains, the surging sea, the different patterns of light on the water at Bakoven, are all glorious.

The novel is set pre-Covid, during Cape Town’s water crisis, and Stella often collects water from the Newlands spring. There also a hilarious email chain among UCT academics over the discovery of a rat in a lecture theatre, when Stella saves the day. It rings so true that one wonders if author Ron Irwin, an academic at UCT, lightly disguised a real episode.

There are several passages about the process of creating art based on the ocean, so that the reader can see in their mind’s eye the blues and greens of the seascape Stella is painting.

I have a couple of niggles. For a novel set so firmly in a Cape Town we know, one particular moment jars. After the encounter with the shark Ben is too upset to drive his VW Beetle home, so catches a train. From Bakoven? There’s also a reference to the “modest suburban homes of Camps Bay”. When did Irwin last drive down Camps Bay Drive? And minuscule is spelt like that, not miniscule.

But those are tiny reservations. The novel is wonderful, absorbing and beautifully written. Well worth reading.





One thought on “Prospect of death, desire and the beauty of the sea

  1. David Bristow

    Sounds nice, but too many other really good ones on my “big bang” (exploding) list. I wonder when/if we’ll know when the first really good ChatGPT novel hits the lists?


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