Seven Tenths: The Sea and Its Thresholds
Exploring the "notland"-scape and the human condition all at once
Reviewed by Sarah Jean Billeiter, Fri., June 5, 2009
Seven Tenths: The Sea and Its Thresholdsby 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.