Seven Tenths: The Sea and Its Thresholds

Exploring the "notland"-scape and the human condition all at once

Book Review

Seven Tenths: The Sea and Its Thresholds

by James Hamilton-Paterson
Europa Editions, 406 pp., $16 (paper)

Framed by recurring descriptions of a solitary swimmer lost in the ocean, bobbing in a liminal space, Seven Tenths is an examination not only of seas and islands but also of the human condition. However, not content with such a distillation of this work, Hamilton-Paterson has filled it with scientific and historical fact, expertly blurring the lines of fiction and creative nonfiction. Immediately following the first drowning-man vignette, the narrative turns to a geological survey aboard the Farnella, a mission to map the ocean's floor, or more appropriately, its "notland"-scape. What follows are lessons in oceanography, geology, evolutionary science, anthropology, fishery, and, in many cases, the histories of these subjects, as well a history of Western exploration. As bland as this may sound to a reader not immediately sold on the book's title alone, Hamilton-Paterson's poeticism and wit render even discussions of depth zones compelling. And for all the details of sciences and histories, and sometimes even because of them, he continuously returns to the condition of man, to man-made dualities, to the obsession with naming, superstition, and mortality.

In addition to the scientists he cites, Hamilton-Paterson jokes with the likes of John Donne ("All men have an island, Donne should have said"), quotes Basho, and constantly returns to Joseph Conrad, further evading a genre distinction or simple summation.

Originally published in 1992, the book's discussions of coral bleaching, climate change, extinction, culturally and environmentally detrimental island development, and pirates keep this reissue relevant in the world of today. Seven Tenths is not, however, a call to action. Hamilton-Paterson makes it clear that the cultural transition from the "cartographer's fiction," the belief that mapping and naming create actual control, to conservation is by no means beneficial. He claims the entire enterprise of conservation is self-defeating, because to announce something as needing conservation is to announce simultaneously its loss.

What, then, is the book about? In addition to necessary updates throughout, this issue includes a new essay at the end, "Sea Burial," that ties everything up – perhaps too neatly – thoroughly revisiting the human condition while also mocking the author's sense of fatalism. With or without the final essay, the book's focus may sometimes be allusive but is never muddled, and this is a necessary read for any lover of words.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for almost 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

More Book Reviews
<i>Presidio</i> by Randy Kennedy
Presidio by Randy Kennedy
For his debut novel, Kennedy creates a road story that portrays the harsh West Texas terrain beautifully and fills it with sympathetic characters.

Jay Trachtenberg, Sept. 14, 2018

Hunting the Golden State Killer in <i>I'll Be Gone in the Dark</i>
Hunting the Golden State Killer in I'll Be Gone in the Dark
How Michelle McNamara tracked a killer before her untimely death

Jonelle Seitz, July 20, 2018

More by Sarah Jean Billeiter
New in Print
Living Room: A Novel
Rachel Sherman puts three generations of a Long Island family under the microscope in her debut novel

Dec. 18, 2009

Now You're Cooking With Gastronomy: 'Return to Beauty' by Narine Nikogosian
Now You're Cooking With Gastronomy: 'Return to Beauty' by Narine Nikogosian
Nikogosian schools Chronique in putting food on our faces

Nov. 3, 2009


the human condition, Seven Tenths: The Sea and Its Thresholds

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

New recipes and food news delivered Mondays

All questions answered (satisfaction not guaranteed)

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle