Its intimidating title notwithstanding, The Sea of Wise Insects (published in November 2011 by Jacana Media) is not a treatise in entomology. A passing interest in insects will, however, go a long way towards making this book a more enjoyable read.
The writer borrows a lot from L Hugh Newman’s Man and Insects and The Soul of the White Ant by Eugene Marais – part of his bibliography. This is a cleverly written book, made even more accessible by the peppering of Spanish (No flies get into a shut mouth), Portuguese (Every fly has its shadow) and Mexican (The best way to put an end to the bugs is to set fire to the bed) proverbs.
It is the story of Alice Wolfe – call her Alice in Wonderland at your own peril – whose whole body is covered in more scars than the number of bones in the human body. This is a legacy of growing up accident-prone. Everything she’s ever played with as a child, from her bicycle to whatever other childish pursuit, has injured her. Washing dishes in later life would not just be another chore but a sure way of drawing blood. She was called Patch at school.
Alice moves to London to find what she thinks is love, ultimately. But it turns out that Ralph, who she meets in a seedy hotel that is actually no hotel but a half-way station for drug addicts and other social misfits, is not really her knight in shining armour. He loves her for who she really is, or so she thinks. She even finds his interest in her elegy of scars not as offensive as what she’d grown accustomed to in her native Cape Town. Ralph even follows her home when she leaves her job as a chambermaid at the London ‘hotel’.
But Ralph, as fate would have it, is Walt Turnbridge, a published author who is looking for material for his new book, The Sea of Wise Insects. Alice knows zilch about Ralph while he’s sucked her dry about anecdotes of her own life. It is only after Ralph has left her and she’s engrossed in his book that Alice sees herself in Lucy, the character of Ralph/Walt’s pen.
The thieving bastard, she fumes. But what does it help, the damage is done.
However embellished, every single one of the characters in the book are people around Alice. The reasons why Ralph left her are reflected in the parting of ways between Walter and Lucy.
The only time in Westby-Nunn’s book that Alice escapes injury is when her brother – Andrew’s fiancée, Veronica, is killed in a car accident. You’d want to hate Alice for taking the rap when it was actually a drugged-up Andrew who was at the wheel of the car that killed his girlfriend. But it is one of the many aces up the author’s sleeve to make this into a good literary offering.
Another ace is about why Lucy’s father left – and still religiously phones her every three months – and why her mother hates her so much.
Should another Westby-Nunn hit the shelves soon, I will lap it up faster than this one.