Sunday 8 September 2013

The Cruel Sea by Nicholas Monsarrat

I started jury duty last week, and I knew enough about what was likely to be in store to look for a long and engrossing novel to take with me. Luckily I found an old Penguin paperback of Nicholas Monsarrat's classic The Cruel Sea.

During the long periods of waiting for a trial I managed to improve my chess game (thanks, Omar) and read The Cruel Sea. It's an engrossing and vivid story of the battle between Allied escort ships and Nazi U-boats in the Atlantic convoys of World War 2. I was about to say it's also really well researched, but I suspect that Monsarrat didn't so much research it as live through it.

The writing is often brilliant. A fast moving destroyer is described as "throwing out a bow-wave like the slicing of a huge cream cake" and the bridge of a ship "which seemed to have taken a direct hit from a bomb or a shell, looked like a twisted metal cage from which something violent and strong had ripped a way to freedom." 

And here's how he writes about the convoy when one of the vessels gets torpedoed and bursts into flame: "The ships on either side of her, and the ships astern, fanned outwards, like men stepping past a hole in the road."

This is an excellent novel, full of knowledge and insight. There is a slightly drippy romantic subplot, which is the only somewhat false note, but it's completely outweighed by the other superb qualities of the book.

The scene where our heroes' ship has to stop dead for hours during an engine repair, utterly vulnerable to attack, is almost unbearably suspenseful, as is the scene where they are relentlessly chasing a surfaced U-boat, trying to get close enough to attack before they are spotted.

There are also shocking scenes of death and the sinking of ships — and a startling line of humour. Monsarrat can really write and he creates a large cast of excellent characters. He also has a neat way of reminding the reader of who's who — "Barnard, the bearded coxswain" — which is essential with a cast of this size.

Highly recommended. 

(And I was delighted to see that the Good Reads website also recommends Richard McKenna's brilliant novel The Sand Pebbles and Len Deighton's classic Bomber for people who enjoyed The Cruel Sea. They're quite right.)

(Image credits: The main picture, with cover art by Paul Wright, is the edition I read — and similarly battered. It is from an interesting blog called Olman's Fifty. The guy also has a Winnipeg connection, like I do. The really nice pink and green early Penguin cover art is from the Facebook WWII page, of all places. The clever and elegant periscope-view Penguin cover is an archived pic from eBay. The 'Permanent Penguin' edition — what a great series they were — is from Jacket Flap.)


  1. I have heard about this novel many times but I have never read it.
    Your article has motivated me to hunt down a copy.
    I interested in you comments about the desk last week.
    Best regards.

  2. I hope you enjoy The Cruel Sea. I am now looking for some of Nicholas Monsarrat's other novels to see if they are of an equally high standard. I am happily typing on my new desk now! Best wishes, Andrew