Resurrecting the past

The Wreck at Sharpnose Point

Jeremy Seal <em>Picador, 320pp, £15.99</em>

ISBN 033037463X

What kind of book is this, exactly? History, detective story, travel or fiction? It is, in fact, all of these, and much richer for straddling the genres.

While walking his dog along the wild north Devon-Cornwall coast, Jeremy Seal stumbles on an incongruous Victorian figurehead wrenched from a vessel during a shipwreck in 1842, which is now standing sentinel over the graves of the crew. Intrigued, Seal sets out to trace the ship, and put flesh on the bones of the drowned men. The journey takes him physically from Cornwall to Arbroath, where the ship was built, and imaginatively to Rio, Odessa, Constantinople and Falmouth, where it sailed. But it also takes him deep into 19th-century maritime history. Excursions to the site of the creation and eventual destruction of the Caledonia lead to myriad other excursions into the arcane details of figurehead superstition, the Corn Laws, ship portraiture, lighthouse building, laws regarding the burial of sea dead, and the sensationalist "Broadsides" - precursors of modern tabloids - which loved nothing better than the gory details of a ship- wreck. The Broadsides had no shortage of material. In 1842 alone, 600 British vessels were lost, and mostly in British waters.

At first, these details, however fascinating, seem to pad out what one suspects is a pretty thin story, and Seal's prose sometimes goes over the top with it. He walks to the cliffs "with Florence Nightingale's words of anguish ringing in my ears". After a breathless description of his first visit to the Public Record Office, he opens a document box to find "the tightly packed documents stirred as if at the light, their old folds yawning open like dawn blossoms".

But in his vivid observations of the English coast, Seal's writing is masterly. Peering over vertiginous cliffs, he sees black shale rocks that "appeared embossed on the water. They ran seaward in parallel broken scabs." Unlike their more gentle southern counterparts, the north coasts "charged lemming-like to their magnificent, abrupt conclusions".

As the book progresses, the pace picks up. Seal shares the thrill of the chase as he locates the family tree of the captain and any other archival detail, however small or misleading, that might embellish his tale. He also reveals his disappointment when, early on, the story is seemingly dished up whole in the local vicar's memoirs, potentially spoiling Seal's taste for tantalising titbits - though we know, because there is still over half the book to go, that these "Remembrances" can't be all they seem.

However, The Wreck at Sharpnose Point turns into something much more interesting and unusual when Seal launches out of the safe harbour of research into the wild oceans of fiction. It is brave to attempt to switch between the two, as each threatens to diminish the other, but Seal does it so successfully that, during the fictional excursions, you quickly suspend disbelief and soon look forward to getting to know the main characters better. The relationships between the crew are subtly and convincingly portrayed - the first mate tormenting the Argentinian cook for producing foul coffee; the cook trying to curry favour in return by insulting the second mate, who is a general object of derision - so that by the time we reach the watery denouement, we actually care about their fate.

Seal clearly relishes the vocabulary of the high seas, so it comes as little surprise that his own forebears were mariners. In a poignant interlude, he reveals that while he was helping his father, a naval officer, to repair an old two-masted ketch, he dropped dead of a heart attack.

From the start, there are hints that wreckers might have lured the Caledonia to her destruction. Though never proved, hundreds of stories abound on both north and south coasts of wreckers fastening lanterns around the necks of animals to suggest the bobbing lights of a fellow ship at sea, thus lulling the prey into a false sense of security, and thence to the rocks where the wreck could be picked over by scavenging locals. Was the poetically inclined vicar of Morwenstow, whose "Remembrances" were so suspect, himself a wrecker? The answer to the mystery of the Caledonia ultimately proves more mundane than this, and more humane, but it would wreck the story to reveal more.

Helena Drysdale's latest book, Mother Tongues, is published by Picador (£16.99)