‘Whoever Fears the Sea’ review by Sophy Kohler in the Sunday Times

A friend recently revealed to me that she has stopped reading fiction – that, as she sees it, life is too short for novels. At the time I met her confession with silence. What I should have said is that the best fiction teaches us about the world, it shows us how to be in the world, and it offers us different ways of understanding the world. Justin Fox’s first novel is a fine example of the possibilities of fiction.

In Whoever Fears the Sea, Paul Waterson travels to Kenya to develop a script for a documentary about the Swahili coast, provisionally titled People of the Monsoon. The ending of his relationship with his New York girlfriend, has left him reeling and, thus, a perfect victim for the sea’s sirenic lure. His initial plan is to explore the Lamu Archipelago – a group of islands off the coast of northern Kenya – where dhows are still used as the main form of transport. But as he travels through Nairobi, Mombasa, Malindi, and on to Lamu, Waterson becomes consumed with finding what is rumoured to be the last remaining mtepe dhow – a craft stitched together with thread, rather than built with nails – an obsession that takes him closer and closer to Somali waters.

Fox has set the book shortly after the September 11 attacks and, in doing so, he considers the historical conflict between Islam and Christianity, between East and West, and the longstanding effects of colonialism on Africa’s coastline. Setting this scene of tension is crucial for the denouement, in which we are offered an alternative reading of modern-day Somali piracy, predicated upon East Africa’s rich maritime history – a tradition of sailing that dates back over 2000 years.

This may be his debut novel, but Fox is a master travel writer: he is the former editor of Getaway magazine and the author of close to a dozen non-fiction titles. Whoever Fears the Sea comes, therefore, out of his many years of travelling and documenting. His fiction, like his non-fiction, is lucid, graceful, and stowed with facts. More concretely, his novel developed out of two trips Fox took to Lamu for Getaway, in 2001 and 2006. If the dialogue seems precise, then, it is because it is likely that many of the conversations in the book took place; if the encounters seem real, it is because they probably happened.

Bobbing up between passages of historical and geographical detail are levity and humour. When Waterson encounters Dalila Kariuki, a nineteen-year-old Kikuyu from Nairobi, Fox writes: “He was caught between a neo-colonial rock and a hard-on.”

Whoever Fears the Sea may be, as JM Coetzee says in his cover shout, “full of sex and action”, but it is what Coetzee calls the book’s “revisionist message” that really makes us pay attention. In a variation on the terrorist-or-freedom fighter paradox, Fox offers us a different way of understanding modern-day Somali piracy, built upon its beginnings as a means of defence against over-fishing by western trawlers and the illegal dumping of toxic waste. He allows us to see, however briefly, pirates as guardians of the coast and not as desperate criminals.

Fox is one of South Africa’s finest writers of non-fiction outside of the dreary, pervasive realm of political writing. If he continues to write novels, one suspects he’ll soon be lapping at the sides of the international fiction scene.

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