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James MacManus | A Fantasy, A Life

July 20, 2011

James MacManusTHE LANGUAGE OF THE SEAI have always wanted to be a seal. During family holidays on the chilly English coast my childhood dream was to walk into the sea, magically become a seal and swim to the horizon  without  a backward glance at family and friends left on the beach.  My pale, thin skin had gone to be replaced by a grey pelt lined with thick blubber. My hands had become flippers and my legs had fused into a powerful tail. That small, round, funny face of mine had turned into a long sleek snout bristling with whiskers and capped with beautiful dark eyes.

And I would be happy. I would have the freedom of the seas, the freedom to slide through the waves, hunt fish and frolic for the amusement of passengers on passing ships.

This escapist fantasy has endured and led me to write my first novel, THE LANGUAGE OF THE SEA. It is set in Cape Cod where Leo Kemp loses both his job as marine biologist and his 10 year-old son in a boating accident. He takes his students on a last field trip at sea and is swept overboard in a sudden storm. He finds himself in the water surrounded by seals whose secret language he has been studying for years.

What follows is Leo’s journey into myth as he lives with a pod of seals on the foreshore of the Cape, scrabbling an existence from seaweed and shellfish. The myth of “Selkies,” humans who become seals, is very much part of Leo’s story. That myth is still believed in the fishing communities on the Celtic rim in Britain. I have heard old men in the Arran Islands off the Irish coast  tell of how seals will come ashore on a stormy winter night, shed their pelts to become  beautiful women  who woo and wed local fishermen. Years later the women will walk back into the sea during a mid-winter storm and become seals again, leaving behind empty beds, broken hearts and motherless children.

This novel is not a mythical story however. It is rooted in the reality of a family riven by the loss of a child. It is about a scientist convinced that the oceans about which we know so little hold the key to the future of the planet. And it is about the search for redemption by a man anguished over the loss of his son. And of course this book, as the title suggests, is about the secret language of seals and their natural habitat, the sea.

James MacManus

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