Book of a Lifetime: The Perfect Storm, By Sebastian Junger

Book of a Lifetime published in the Independent Saturday 02 June 2012

I learned two things while I was reading this book. First, that true stories can be more exciting and extraordinary than fictional ones. And second, that the best books are the ones where you are glued to your seat. This is how it was with The Perfect Storm.

In 1998 we had just brought a crumbling 14th-century house in Kent. It is largely constructed from timber, recycled from old sailing boats and brought up from the Kent coast. In a high wind, it creaks just like a ship and in a storm everything rattles and sways. There are no foundations, just a timber base on which the house rests; this expands and contracts, allowing for the natural movements of the earth.

On a night in late October, with a howling gale outside, I sat down to read this book. Only when I closed it did I realise that the date on which the events took place exactly matched the date on which I was reading it. It was Halloween. The rest of the family was in the other room watching the television, but I decided to stay reading by our old metal stove that was useless for cooking, but good for “hugging” on cold nights. It seemed to me that this book was meant to be read on such a night: it was “The Perfect Book”.

It tells the true story of a trawler, the Andrea Gail, which went out on a six-week trip to fish for tuna from Massachusetts and encountered a massive storm caused by the freak meeting of two weather fronts.

On that night, with rain lashing at the windows, my imagination was entirely caught up in this account of real events and the relationships between the men who live this strange and dangerous life. From page one, there is a sense of doom, but this makes the almost bland, matter-of-fact tone all the more powerful. It is a book devoid of sentimentality, but somehow full of feeling.

At the beginning of each chapter, there is some kind of quote. Sometimes I find this habit a bit pretentious, an after-thought designed to connect the writer with greater ones, but in The Perfect Storm the quotes fit perfectly. Many are from the Bible (the terrifying movement of the sea is entirely biblical in scale) and several from Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick: “All collapsed, and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it had five thousand years ago.”

It was this sense of the relentless power of the elements that overwhelmed me as I finished reading, and the almost callous way in which the crew were treated by the sea: “They didn’t die, they disappeared off the face of the earth.” The men may have vanished, but this book means that they will never be forgotten – and the memory of those hours when I read it remains a very sharp one.

Victoria Hislop’s ‘The Thread’ is out in paperback from Headline Review