The Blue (30 July 2015) by Lucy Clarke
The Blue is Lucy Clarke's third novel, following The Sea Sisters (known by the more elegant title Swimming at Night in the US) and A Single Breath. The stories are not officially connected, but might be considered a loose trilogy: they each have the tone of a thriller, but with softer edges; a big focus on secrets (usually someone lying about their past); a bit of a love story somewhere in the background; but most prominently and memorably, they demonstrate a romantic attachment to the idea of wanderlust and to an impossibly picturesque ideal of travelling, with colourful, richly described locations featuring just as significantly in the story as the characters. Even A Single Breath, which wasn't explicitly about travelling per se, involved a journey to a far-flung place and a lot of scenic description.
While The Sea Sisters was about siblings and A Single Breath about a newly married couple, in The Blue, Clarke turns her attention to a friendship. The major relationship in this story is between Lana and her best (in fact, only) friend Kitty. They have known each other since the first year of high school, where Lana was the archetypal artistic misfit and Kitty her social lifeboat - the two of them bonded over the loss of their mothers at a young age. Flashbacks to various key points in this friendship are what anchor the story and give their characters some solidity.
Lana and Kitty - the former escaping from a murkily difficult relationship with her father, the latter from a failing acting career and nascent alcoholism - pool their savings, pick a location (the Philippines) at random, and set off travelling. This is more or less where the beginning of the story finds them: Lana falls in the street, a man stops to help, and then they meet his friends, the crew of a yacht named The Blue. The two women instantly fall in love with the group's romantic, semi-nomadic way of life - everyone pays what they can towards the upkeep of the yacht, and decisions are made democratically; their days are spent travelling around virtually undiscovered islands, swimming, snorkelling and sunbathing - and, in the quick and convenient way of events in books, they move into an empty cabin. But it's not long before it becomes evident that things aren't quite as idyllic as they seem aboard The Blue. With seven people living in close quarters on a cramped ship (and relationships between them ostensibly forbidden), tempers swiftly fray and cracks appear in Lana and Kitty's new 'perfect life'.
Naturally, all of this builds up to a death, which we know about from the flash-forward prologue: it depicts a body floating in the sea as a yacht (guess which one) is steered away, 'the truth... already drifting out of reach'. (Though as the ending proves, Lana and Kitty's falling-out, one's betrayal of the other, is treated as more significant, and is the real axis on which the story turns.) The travel element is more about observing the beauty of 'exotic' places, appreciating nature and being free from the shackles of ordinary life - dull jobs and emotional baggage - than it is about immersing oneself in a different culture or actually understanding another country, making it a perfect fit for the 'beach read' genre because, despite the glamour of the characters' adventure, it's really about tourism, not engagement. (As I said in a recent post, I wished I could teleport myself to a deserted beach to read it). And a romance inevitably develops, but it's handled well, doesn't happen instantly and is a believable progression for the characters involved - to the point that I even found myself feeling emotionally invested in the outcome of that particular subplot...
There's a handful of genre authors I regard as masters at what they do - F.G. Cottam for ghost stories; Erin Kelly for crime; Kate Morton for her particular (often emulated) brand of part-historical fiction/buried-secrets mystery. Lucy Clarke has now crept onto this list with her blend of travelogue, thriller and relationship drama. I don't expect to get any real surprises with her books - I know they will likely always be the same kind of thing, but that doesn't make them any less enjoyable to me. Advance quotes about The Blue praise it as 'the ultimate holiday read', 'a perfect summer read', and they're exactly right - it's engrossing, the characters are interesting, the plot zips along, and its portrayal of an escape from the mundane, life at sea and island-hopping is vivid enough to serve as an armchair holiday, even if you don't have a deserted beach to accompany it.
I received an advance review copy of The Blue from the publisher through NetGalley.
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