Rating: 3.5 stars
The Known and Unknown Sea is the second novel by Alan Bilton. I read it to fulfil clue 18 of the Winter Scavenger Hunt, which asked us to read a book published by an independent publisher. Cillian Press in based in Manchester, and I was intrigued by the blurb for this book. It was unsettling and made me feel sad, but I’m glad that I read it. It’s the memoir of a man who can only recall events as he experienced them as a child. It is surreal, nightmarish, darkly funny and poignant.
At first I thought I was going to struggle to get on with the story. It seemed to lack a core that I could take my bearings from. Then it started to make a kind of sense, even where there was no sense. The story is part nightmare, part child-like, surreal rambling. Sometimes it felt like the characters were travelling to their doom, desperately trying to be cheerful, and at those points it made me think of holocaust literature – the telling each other things would be fine when the evidence suggested otherwise. Other times it felt like the characters were in a big experiment, perhaps travelling to the moon to see if people could live there. All is (sort of) resolved at the end. There is something of Kafka about it, something of Magnus Mills. It wasn’t a comfortable read by any means, but I couldn’t put it down.