Book Review: The Old Man and the Sea

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Welcome to the latest edition of book reviews. Where I talk about a book that broke a bunch of writing rules and still ended up becoming a classic. Without further ado, let me introduce you to ‘The Old Man and the Sea’ by Ernest Hemingway.

The last novel Ernest Hemingway saw published, The Old Man and the Sea has proved itself to be one of the enduring works of American fiction. (as in people actually know it exists after the author died? Or that people sort of know the plot so many years later?) It is the story of an old Cuban fisherman and his supreme ordeal: a relentless, agonizing battle with a giant marlin far out in the Gulf Stream. (you are being dramatic, it was only agonizing at the end and it wasn’t that far out in the gulf stream.) Using the simple, powerful language of a fable, (best part) Hemingway takes the timeless themes of courage in the face of defeat and personal triumph won from loss and transforms them into a magnificent twentieth-century classic.

Note: I apologize for the terrible summary, but they were all terrible and this was the best I could find without having to write one myself.

One of the best parts about this book is that it is short. I was able to read it in an afternoon. Yay! Though I have a feeling that I would have read it even if it was a thousand pages long. You kind of get sucked in…

Yes, the book really is about an old man. And that is what he is called for the entire book, the old man. The only other character who makes multiple appearances is called the boy. They do have names, Hemingway just didn’t bother to use them. As a writer who tends to forget to name her characters until half way through the novel, I appreciated that part.

Please don’t think that because the novella is about an old man that you won’t be interested, that it will be boring, and that it won’t be relatable. To that I say, Ha! I am neither old, or a man, and I was sucked into Santiago’s story from chapter one. I found myself hoping that he would be able to get his hand un-cramped in time. Cheering him on during his battle against the sharks.

Santiago is more than your average grandfather puttering around his house. He is strong, strong enough to keep fishing even though he hasn’t eaten anything all day. He is also stubborn, and willing to keep going even though the odds are against him. In a younger man those two character traits would be coupled with pride. But you get the idea that he lost his pride long ago. It was burned out by the hot tropical sun and washed away with the waves. The boy does so much for him, and he doesn’t complain. He is grateful for the boys help, and misses him when he is gone.

If Santiago is the heart beat of the story, the sea is the body. I don’t know the author very well, but I have a good guess that he was familiar with the ocean. He knew its colors and its moods, he knew which fish liked what depth of water and what it felt like to lose sight of land.

The whole story was there for Hemingway to describe the ocean. Any narrative pieces were quickly got out of the way so that he could get back to his favorite topic. Which is where he broke the rules.

All writers are told this over and over and over again to ‘show, don’t tell’. Show the characters emotions, show the world, show the characters, don’t tell unless you absolutely have to. It is great advice, but I present to you an entire book that took that advice and put it on its head.

If Santiago was hungry, Hemingway said he was hungry. If he was scared, that was told to you to. No, the author never sat down and sketched out exactly what he looked like and what his character was, he let you figure that out yourself. He kept all his telling to the narrative bits, the bits that he got out of the way as soon as possible so that he could get back to showing you the ocean.

Which isn’t to say that the whole book was a disguised essay on ocean life. There was plenty going on, he just didn’t waste a bunch of words on it. Even though I would think it is a big deal when Santiago finally gets that fish, Hemingway just lets you know it happened, then moves on with what is happening next. It isn’t a breakneck pace, but it isn’t slow either. The pace is a steady walk through the story, ending when you suddenly turn a corner and realize that you have arrived at your destination.

If you are interested in reading something that takes the conventional way of novel writing and bends them, give it a try! At least its short, and if you hate it you won’t have spent an entire day on it. But I don’t think you will hate it.

It is clean as far as content goes, and I would be happy to recommend it to an age.

I think ‘The Old Man and the Sea’ deserves its five stars: * * * * *

Shaina Merrick

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