Here is the prologue/first chapter of Gulliver’s Wife, my new novel, released by Simon & Schuster on April 1, 2020.
The sea has given birth to a man.
He dreams on a bed of sand and his dreams are slippery. They beat a gentle cadence: the soft whisper of plumage, teasing his mind with tokens of the past. His first fight as a student at the local grammar school, the fizz of blood in his veins, the taste of copper. His opponent’s face – he cannot recall the boy’s name – crumpling beneath his fist, features vanishing in a glossy oil painting of skin and teeth. He sees his mother’s thin body hunched over the writing desk, begging Uncle John for funds to send him to Cambridge college. Most of all, he dreams of the river, its start in Trewsbury Mead and then its course through the centre of London. He remembers a poem once read to him by his tutor, a few paragraphs of shambling script the man wrote himself. The work was badly formed, but one phrase stuck, one image: the Thames was the river of time, his tutor said. Between its currents we were born and within its muddy borders we expect to expire.
The water of this Indian Ocean is so different from the Thames, though.
He lifts himself, or tries to, first one leg and then the other. They will not turn to account; his legs appear stuck fast, bonded to the sand with ropes of kelp. His guts cramp. He jerks his head upwards. A patch of hair near his forehead rips free of its moorings and beneath the searing pain, he feels blood pool in the cradle of his ear.
God save me.
Gulls wheel overheard, pale wraiths against the fading light. Their raucous cries split the air and raise goose pimples on his bare skin. When he set out from Bristol with the rest of the crew – a lifetime ago, it seems – two crows tore each other to shreds in the sky above the mast and a maelstrom of feathers and guts rained down across the deck.
‘An omen,’ someone said, and the others laughed. Did he laugh with them? He cannot remember, but the shrill noise of the gulls now fills him with a sickening dread and he can see himself as they see him, looking down from a great height. There is his hair, the colour of wet sand, fanned out against the shore and there his arms, hands clenched by his sides.
Struggle as he might, he is caught, fastened like some ancient sacrifice. It’s useless to fight. He would do better to rest and conserve his energy for the struggle ahead, for whoever has him ensnared will surely return. There is no magic, after all. He, Lemuel Gulliver, is a man of logic and science. No room for pagan belief, omens or imaginings. When his opponent returns, he will take his chances and then, somehow, he will find his way home.
The sun is beginning to sink on the horizon, just visible if he gazes down past the bridge of his nose. Water tickles his feet. The tide is coming in.
Each surge brings a spate of foam rushing up his legs, the sound muffled through the blood clogging his ear. Although he should be tense, he finds his muscles relaxing. He allows his head to fall back until he is floating, weightless. The water is warm. This is the end, he thinks, and the thought no longer seems troubling. There are worse ways to go. Laid out on an operating table beside his organs, or waiting for his guts to strangle him to death like Jimsy and the others whose bodies now rest at the bottom of the sea. It proved beyond him to help those men, but perhaps he can help himself. He can free his mind of its bonds, help cut away the extraneous fetters that tie him to this life. One by one, he sets them loose: his daughter, his son, his maps. His wife.
A blast echoes, like the bugle cry of a horn, and his eyes fly open. Darkness. Water is everywhere, waves splashing up his cheeks. He is pulled in every direction, rolled into the surf. His mouth opens wide in surprise, allowing a glut of seawater to surge in. Unable to surface, he drinks, and as the water fills his lungs, he imagines he is drinking the ocean dry. There will be nothing left but brittle coral and the pearly bones of dead men.
Dizziness spins his head. He spits out a mouthful of bitter brine. Now seemingly unbound, he claws the current with his hands, legs kicking. Exhilaration swoops through his body, inflating his limbs as he breaks the surface. Water slaps his chest, his toes grip the sea bed. Each breath is a bellows, a furnace sparking fire in his chest.
The shore within grasp, he lunges out and falls head first, flailing, into the wash. Spent, he lets the small waves caress his face.
Only then does he hear the voices.