Time permitting, I do the occasional review on books. A blogger’s friend novel, Joe Linker’s ‘Penina’s Letters,’ struck a chord. So I share my review here.
Sal is in love with Penina, the ocean, and surfing – passionate loves that merge in the salty letters he sent home from the army. Sparse incidents from the war zone are drawn from the periphery of his memory, more touching for that, true or not. Mainly, his dispatches home in on poetizing Penina’s body, moods of light on water, waves.
Somehow his earthy friends got hold of his private letters to Penina and celebrated Sal’s homecoming in a drunken party madness, reading his ramblings out loud, with jokes like, “What god-awful mush.” Autsch! Sal counters the humiliation with an impromptu sarcastic poem. The lovers are stunned and buckle under the onslaught. Shamed, Sal lets the Santa Ana winds blow his love letters into the waves like afflicted birds. Penina infers he has cast her away. Sal ponders whether he had written to himself, and whether written letters and read letters were the same letters.
Sal takes to surfing, reflecting on ordinary lives in the fictional parish of Refugio in Santa Monica Bay, where everybody knows everybody, among them his old surf buddies: Puck Malone, a trickster, with grand plans for his surf board shop. For him Sal’s poetry is crazy talk but potentially interesting PR for business. Harry Killnot made it as lawyer, though his flash car hides as much yearning for love as Sal’s elaborate prose. Harry hates his revolting family crowd. Unlike Sal, he never catches the point where a surfer becomes one with the wave. The reception at Henry’s family home in honour his a little brother’s first Holy Communion reads like a comedy and is all the more tragic in its orchestration and finale.
Behind every war trails grief. Puck and Sal visit the parents of a friend who did not return. Mr Chippy talks of his son, Tom, with sad pride, “He could drive 16 penny nails, sinking the heads flat in three swings, leaving no hammer mark, all day long.”
Sal escapes from grief, things, and more things, from the small minds he also loves, from life’s futility – by surfing. Paddling out and riding waves clears his head. A three day stunt on water becomes a rhapsody of ocean, sky, purling, fragments of dawn and dusk, sounds of creatures from the deep dark. The undercurrents of Sal’s heart shine through what is left unsaid. He trusts waves will carry him.
For him, hell is an ocean with no waves.
Sal survived a war and Penina survived waiting, but being a surfer’s muse, had a fling or two, and moved on to studying. She loves Sal, tries to get through to him, calling their talk palaver. “Sounds like the name for a bird,” Sal says. His mind moves with the wind, and the waves, longing to catch the moments of effortless gliding. Once on shore, he thinks of the next wave. A woman set on settled life can’t compete with such love.
I’ve never stood on a surf board. Skiing in powdery snow or skating on smooth ice comes closest to my experience of gliding.
A wave is something else. The primal power of a wave demands respect, and, so I understand after reading Sal’s ocean rhapsodies, a wave breaking from the swell will only reveal its secret heart to a disciple, will only transport the surfer whose aptitude and dexterity match his dedication.
Find the book on Amazon here.