Gilian Best’s début novel, The Last Wave, is a thoughtful narrative that charts the intricacies of one family’s experiences and relationships across three generations, from the postwar period to the present. It makes use of the iconography of the coast and the unpredictability of the sea almost as a dramatis personae that motivates, consoles, and potentially threatens the characters in their proximate lives. Set on the coast of southern England, Best’s imagery is beautiful and evocative: windswept, shingle beaches, the White Cliffs of Dover, Vera Lynn’s haunting song.
Martha and John Roberts live by this grey and unruly sea; for Martha, a swimmer, it has always been an immersive experience of challenge, providing her with a sense of purpose beyond the roles of wife and mother. Her desire to swim the Channel, to feel salt on her skin, is life-defining, offering both independence and emotional connections.
The story is told in multiple voices within the family. This shifting of perspective does allow us to see into the various cross-currents of family life – its rifts as well its opportunities. However, it is also a rather wooden strategy, as it somewhat heavy-handedly stitches together its themes and symbolisms, providing no real rationale as to why we might be privy to each character’s point of view. In narrative terms, these varying currents are brought to a head in the novel’s present in which John descends into a fog of dementia, Martha is dying from cancer, and unspoken things surge and press.
Best nevertheless conveys a powerful sense of the emotional tides sweeping her characters. Her poignant portrayal of the enduring bonds between John and Martha, even in the face of such unravelment, gives insight into how we might all face that last wave when it inevitably comes.