31 JANUARY 2004, Page 57

Plumbing the depths

Katie Grant

A CLEAR CALLING by David Austin Cape, £14.99, pp. 141, ISBN 022406441X The sea frightens me. It seems so cold and cruel, even when it looks warm and inviting. It was with some wariness, therefore, that I approached David Austin's first novel, in which the sea, or the Sea, as it is sometimes called in this book, is a major player. Robert Radnor has returned from India 'with a little splash of publicity' generated through his being the only survivor of the Golden Delta, a rusty tramp steamer 'blown round the world by the winds of whatever trade could be found' and finally obliterated by a tidal wave. Radnor, who is already going mad and losing his life-long desire to be a sailor, has foreseen the tragedy, as he foresees others, because he and the Sea have a strange relationship — the clear calling of the title — which grants him a special intuition that survives 'outside of the modern world with its greed for data'. Once back in England, Radnor sets up home in a shack near a fishing village, where he lives in silent and lonely eccentricity, carving wooden heads, growing long hair and a beard and causing June Morrow, the local postmistress, a headache or two. As his world is threatened and his life draws to a close, he goes on a 'last voyage' through his mind.

David Austin has a real feel for the sea and this little book has a splendid way of creaking and groaning, until you end up feeling a little queasy yourself, rolled and bowled relentlessly backwards and forwards, with no safe haven for a breather. The mood is unrelievedly dark, and the authorial voice tolls a very doleful bell. There is no comfort, even at the end, and several times whilst I was reading it I was reminded of Conrad's 'the horror, the horror', a phrase which would not have been out of place on the bridge of the Golden Delta as she sank in the Bay of Bengal, drowned by a wave as big as a cathedral. Those who know the sea, or even the Sea, will recognise much in this book. Those like me, however, who were fearful before will know for certain that they should give all open waters an even wider berth. This author's sea is not a cosy place at all. It is always said of first-time novelists that you should write what you know. There is no doubt that David Austin has done just that and done it with aplomb.