I regret that this review comes two years too late: Sea Changes was published in 2012, and better minds than my own already praised Mr. Turner’s first novel more deftly than I will be able to. Taki Theodoracopulos (whose ‘High Life’ article in The Spectator is the highlight of my post-church Sunday morning) called it an ‘antidote to the PC hustlers who salve their own bad consciences by making normal people feel uncomfortable in their skins.’ Sir Richard Body, one of the last pre-Thatcherite Conservative Party MPs to retire from Parliament, praised it for its ‘courage and compassion’, and Russia Today columnist Ilana Mercer says it brings to life ‘the prototypical players in the Western tragedy that is mass migration.’ All these are true—and yet there are elements of Mr. Turner’s novel not yet noted that might interest Imaginative Conservatives.
Sea Changes is set in the aftermath of an all-too-believable disaster: Dozens of dark-skinned bodies wash up on the beachhead of a quiet English farm town on the eastern coast. The bodies are presumed to be those of would-be illegal immigrants, and their mysterious cause of death leads to a national crisis. The left-wing, self-loathing xenophiles’ response is sickeningly realistic; the conclusion is heartbreakingly believable. As a conservative journalist in the novel notes, the deserving and undeserving alike never get what they really deserve. [pg. 420]
What sets Mr. Turner’s novel apart from the majority of right-wing views on mass immigration is, as Sir Richard points out, its compassion. Mr. Turner sees this scenario for what it really is: a lose-lose. It would be terrible, we would no doubt agree, if the pursuit of multiculturalism left the indigenous culture of England extinct. But nor can we rightly blame third-world refugees for wanting to come to England, or—with their own intense cultural conditioning and lack of English-language training—for finding it difficult to integrate. Mr. Turner makes no excuses; we sense he comes down on the side of those who call mass repopulation ultimately unsustainable and unconscionable. But he does not ignore the immediate reality of the migrants. Who would not rather live in England than Iraq, the Sudan, or Lebanon? There is any number of moments where we feel deeply for one of the protagonists, an Iraqi illegal immigrant named Ibraham. While he cannot understand why the English would blame themselves for the deaths of the group of illegals—Iraqis, he notes, would not give it a second thought—he admits that, ‘There was something noble in the English reaction’. [pg. 281] Even as he stands to benefit from their oddly misguided compassion, Ibraham sees it as just that: misguided. There is a particularly harrowing moment toward the end where we realize the England (we might even say ‘the West’) that immigrants look toward has been abolished by those who would welcome mass repopulation with open arms. A good job and/or a welfare check are not what make England (or the West) a beacon of hope for so many huddled masses. Grief breaks over the reader as we look on a ‘vast and indifferent and pointless’ London, as we are overwhelmed by its ‘assembled emptiness’. [pg. 430] Man shall not live on bread alone, and there may come a time where immigrants have to choose between the two: bread, or life. We can still offer the former, but the latter seems to be in short supply.
Yet because the politics are so good, we are (quite innocently) at risk of neglecting the literary value of the novel, which is far greater than its considerable rhetorical force. Mr. Turner is the editor of the Quarterly Review, a decidedly Tory-sympathising journal based in the United Kingdom. While this is his first book, Mr. Turner is well known across the English-speaking world: I was introduced to him by an Australian barrister, and his good reputation was confirmed by a number of Americans, a few of whom contribute to The Imaginative Conservative. The commentator-turned-novelist is not unlikely; William F. Buckley, Jr. and Russell Kirk both dabbled in the thriller genre, with considerable success. But it is not quite the same with Mr. Turner. We sense he is a novelist foremost—even if he only realized it in 2012—who also happens to be a political commentator. We say, ‘His literary art happens to deal with politics,’ rather than ‘He gives a literary treatment of politics.’ The art comes before the ideology. If the product happens to be in some ways Conservative, that is the inescapable prejudice Mr. Turner possesses as a thinking person with strong opinion.
For instance, he gives a stunning description of a Turkish fishing boat captain crossing the Mediterranean: ‘Faces like his had looked out over these waters since their 7th century ancestors had thundered down from the mountains to raid the fat Greek cities of the Hellenized coast.” [pg. 118] This is something we might expect a conservative to say, with his disinterested, reverent love of history; but the beauty of the sentence is appreciable beyond party loyalties. There is also the haunting line where the same journalist reflects that he’s been ‘struck down by equality’s angels, like the Romanovs in the cellar.’ [pg. 401] An orthodox Bolshevik might find this disagreeable, but the language’s subtle allusion, its dark rhythm, must be called objectively well crafted. With an Irishman’s natural ear for music, the novel is impossibly written in the same evocative prose. I could not help but think of Yeats, who, for all his intense, lyrical thoughtfulness, remains Irishmen’s favourite poet, working Catholic and ascendant Protestant alike.
In Sea Changes we have a work whose breed is increasingly endangered, and so increasingly precious: Mr. Turner can see the beauty in mankind, despite our violent attempts to make ourselves ugly and unlovable. We look back at the worlds of Sir Walter Scott, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, maybe even Ernest Hemingway, and see a richness in life that we fear has, for some reason, passed away. ‘No one could write a beautiful novel set in twenty-first century England,’ we might think; ‘It’s such an ugly time to be alive!’ But we’d be mistaken to think that every citizen of the Romantic or Victorian or Modernist Era saw the remarkable, fleeting poetry present in their time and place. We’ve seen those periods through the artists’ eyes, which perceive beauty even in ruin, even in sorrow. All too often modern novelists pretend that such a challenge does not exist—that they have no reason to make that critical insight that only the artist’s mind can handle, or that they are indeed impossible now to make.For those who are curious what romance future generations will look back at this century and pine for—what will trigger their ‘Golden Age Thinking’—Sea Changes is an early and rare starting-point. I cannot recommend enough that readers of The Imaginative Conservative take advantage of it.
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