The Stranger from the Sea: A Novel

Written by Paul Binding
Review by Larry Zuckerman

In 1885, Martin Bridges, a London journalist of little accomplishment and less confidence, takes a job at the newspaper in Dengate, a fictional English seaport on the Channel. A shipwreck occurs, and Hans Lyngstrand, a sailor rescued from the catastrophe, recuperates in the same lodgings as Martin. Their friendship, though it lasts only a few months, changes both of them forever, particularly Martin.

The novel retells Ibsen’s Lady from the Sea (and strongly suggests that the playwright borrowed Hans’s factual ordeal and the legends he tells afterward). More immediately, Binding’s coming-of-age story involves Martin’s landlady, whose almost constant bullying goads him into uncovering her family secrets, and his London friend and former mentor, a charming but selfish reporter who puts him down in other, no less hurtful, ways. You want Martin to stand up to them and show the courage to be himself, the central theme of the book.

The Stranger from the Sea is Victorian to the teeth—long sentences, lush descriptions, stiff attitudes, lengthy speeches—literary mimicry at its finest. I like the often-lyrical prose, and the subtlety with which Binding makes social statements. I also admire his willingness to tackle ambitious themes such as style versus substance, male hypocrisy, and what men do to ward off the vulnerable feelings that come with intimacy. At its best, the approach to writing and the moral problems remind me of George Eliot; unfortunately, the comparison ends with the sometimes meandering, overprocessed story, which can frustrate even a patient reader.

Consequently, though the immersive atmosphere will reward devotees of historical fiction, I think literary readers will like this book better, especially those who love 19th-century fiction.