There is something about the sea that calls to people. Sailors, divers, beach vacationers – to those of us who feel most at home in the salty brine of a vast expanse of water, there is nowhere we’d rather be.
Canadian-born author Gillian Best taps into this sense of aquatic devotion in her debut novel. Set in Dover, England (Best has lived in the U.K. for more than a decade), The Last Wave chronicles the life of Martha Roberts and her obsession with swimming the English Channel, which culminates in nine successful (and one failed) 34-kilometre swims across the body of water to France. Unfortunately, Martha’s affinity for the Channel trumps all other aspects of her life, including her marriage to the temperamental John and being a mother to their children, Harriet and Iain.
The novel bounds back and forth through time, starting in the present with a disoriented John – who suffers from dementia – going in search of his wife one stormy morning, only to be informed by his neighbour that Martha died of cancer months before. Best uses this opening to set up the major themes in the story, particularly John’s combination of pride and resentment toward Martha’s swimming and Martha’s own compulsion to turn her back on the drudgery of domestic life by escaping into the water.
Each chapter provides a different time period and alternating first-person narrator. The shifting perspectives serve to open up details about the family’s life, but there is a sameness to the voices and a certain amount of confusion created by having the events related out of order. This is especially true in the chapters that delve into the family’s experiences after John begins his descent into dementia, Martha receives her cancer diagnosis and treatment, and Harriet’s daughter Myrtle discovers she has grandparents who disowned Harriet after she revealed she is a lesbian.
Despite each character being given a voice, we never really get to know any of them particularly well, even John and Martha. We are given only the barest glances at their relationship, most of them not very positive, leaving us confused as to why these two people claim to love each other, even after 60-odd years. The impetus for Martha’s need to swim is obvious, but Best never gets to the heart of Martha’s unhappiness, merely skimming the surface and painting a portrait of a woman more in need of therapy than a towel and goggles.
Continuity issues, stilted dialogue, and throwaway characters (including the neighbour, Henry, who is only on hand to provide exposition and advance the narrative in ways that could have been assigned to other characters or eliminated altogether) combine to underwhelming effect, and all suffer at the expense of the constant reiteration of Martha’s obsession.