Cove by Cynan Jones

Disclosure: I was sent an advanced reader’s copy of this book by the publisher’s publicist in exchange for my honest review. I rarely do this anymore, because I’m so busy, but I was happy to receive a copy of Cynan Jones’s new novel, because I so enjoyed his Everything I Found on the Beach. Also, this one is short.


Cove is a brief, nearly stream-of-consciousness, minimally sketched narrative of a man in a boat. At under 100 pages and with lots of white space on the page, it’s easily read in a single sitting, and you’ll want to, to find out what happens to our nameless protagonist.

The epigraph offers a dual meaning for the title:

Cove1 (kəʋv) n. a small bay or inlet; a sheltered place.

Cove2 (kəʋv) n. a fellow; a man.

The story opens in second-person perspective: “You hear, on the slight breeze, the tunt tunt, tunt tunt before you see the boat.” This “you” is a pregnant woman on a beach, and she is looking for someone, or something. She finds a doll; and her section closes. Then, Part I.

The story from here is presented in third person, starring an unnamed “he,” a man alone in a fishing kayak. In the opening moment, he has caught a fish, is washing its blood off his hands, and sees a storm coming in. Time jumps around: we see the man catch the fish, see him approach a small bay. He carries his father’s ashes with him; it becomes clear that he means to scatter the ashes in this cove, but there are people there, tourists, and he heads out to sea, planning to return for a more private moment. He’s left his lover with a brief note, not told her where he’s gone; he’ll return later with fish for their meal. It’s implied that this task, his father’s ashes, is one to be completed in privacy perhaps from her as well. But then the storm.

After a lightning strike, the protagonist loses his memory, except in flashes–flashes of details much like lightning, much like the fragmented, imagistic telling of this story. He loses as well the use of one arm, and spends the next hours and days fighting: for fish, for drinking water, for safety, for shore. This book owes something to The Old Man and the Sea, and I mean the comparison as a compliment. Jones’s prose is sparse, and operates on images. Fish, bird, light; memory, the sound of a father’s voice, and the look in a lover’s eyes. This is a book of moments, thoughts and visions, searing pain and flashing hope.

I wrote the above paragraphs before returning to my review of Jones’s early book, for fear of being influenced by my own words; and now I return and see how similarly I characterized his writing then. I’m reproducing here what I wrote more than two years ago, because it is so true of this book, too:

Jones’s writing is deceptively simple, often employing short, declarative sentences that belie his poetic mastery of language. His words have a marching rhythm to them that recalls Hemingway: “The first time he ever shot rabbits he was alone and it was with a shotgun and he had been looking for a long time…” His tone is deliberate, resolutely unexcitable despite the extraordinarily high stakes of his story, peopled almost entirely by the three men, whose interior monologues do much of the work to characterize them.

Substitute one man here for the three men in that other book, and these lines apply beautifully, down to the Hemingway comparison.

The two novels (of five total Jones has published to date) are similar in several respects, then, including their beach/sea setting. I don’t think this is a bad thing. I admire this style, and I’m glad to know there’s more to be explored.

lots of white space emphasizes the minimal narrative style

Brief, and composed in deceptively simple prose, but no “beach read”: Jones’s themes are dark, but vital, and more than thought-provoking, perhaps mind-opening. What is perhaps most appealing to me about this style is the work it asks the reader to do in completing the tale. Minimal storytelling compels me to interpret, to make meaning. I’m a fan, and I’m glad I got a chance to read this book.


Rating: 8 wren feathers.

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