1960s Scotland, a time and an industry long gone, fishing onboard small trawlers, dwarfed by the Atlantic waves. It’s a time of transition; personal, industrial, societal.
And The Silver Darlings, an astonishingly confident debut from Will Morris, tells a tale of boys becoming men, and a tale of the beautiful and terrifying sea, a mistress all seamen learn to respect sooner or later.
The Silver Darling singular refers to the boat, plural it’s a name for the darting, light catching schools of Herring the boat is chasing after, the catch getting less and less over the years. But for young Danny, son of the ship’s Captain, all it means singular or plural is a dead-end, a full stop, his life mapped out before he has a chance to choose for himself. He’s desperate to escape his heritage, his birthright, his small community, the life passed down father to son, generations working the seas.
Thankfully he’s found an escape plan, a cousin willing to take his place, and he’s off, one last summer onboard, then it’s Glasgow and college. There’s a sense that Danny thinks himself a little too good for the boats, arty, thoughtful, above it all. College can’t come too soon.
But first he has to get through this summer, aboard a boat he really isn’t comfortable on, the sealegs skipped a generation with Danny it seems, and it’s not too long before he’s painting the side of the boat all shades of green…
Thing is, the physical aversion to the sea is dwarfed by the young man’s reaction to what he sees onboard; all the outmoded, antiquated superstitions that his dad seems to revel in; whether it’s the no women on board rule, the no returning for a forgotten anything, the no calling a salmon a salmon once onboard. But silliest of all is the rule that you never, ever bring a white handled knife onto the boat.
Danny’s out to prove a point, and armed with one forbidden piece of ivory handled cutlery, he plans to reveal the ridiculousness of the superstitions as they bring in the expected big catch this trip. The young enlightening the world once more, rebellion without a cause.
But maybe the sea knows just that little more than this kid? Maybe Danny shouldn’t tempt fate? Maybe just getting through the fishing trip will be hard enough, without having to worry about making some childish point? Danny learns so much in the course of The Silver Darlings, about himself, about his da’, about the men on the boat, and definitely about the cruel, harsh, really shouldn’t be messed with sea.
The pacing of The Silver Darlings is absolutely pitch perfect; gentle waves lap at the boats in harbour early on, and despite Danny’s stomach telling him otherwise, the waves and the pace remain leisurely and calm up until the first night’s disappointing fishing. After this, things slowly build, the mood tightens and tenses as the seas get rougher, as the young man’s act of rebellion suddenly seems far more dangerous than he ever thought, at that point the tension is palpable.
It’s a thing of rich emotion, sparse words but so rich in imagery and expression, not just a perfect look back to a time, a place, a way of life no longer really with us, this is a beautiful pitched coming of age tale.
For a debut work it’s astonishing how much Morris does right; his artwork beautifully drawn in lush greytone washes, the expression he packs into each line, the huge potential in each image; the page above of Danny feeling the full effects of the sea… just those three middle panels are near perfection… but let’s just look at a single panel…
You can see everything in his face can’t you, feel his guts rolling and churning, feel the swell of the sea.
You can just about see it here closeup but whilst the thick paperstock may be smooth, there’s a texture in the artwork that adds something almost tactile, all part of the sumptuous design; Blank Slate now producing Euro-style Album books, big, lavish hardcovers (and ridiculously cheap too – all this for just a tenner?).
But the luxury package really is deserved here. Morris’s story revisits a bygone age, an old industry, lamenting its decline whilst understanding the need for youth to move on, but makes it clear that the exuberance and confidence of youth should also show some respect for the old ways, else the old ways and the unforgiving sea chose to make an example of you. The journey here from child to adult may be short, but it’s so well observed, so gorgeously detailed, this is truly a lovely book, and Morris is genuinely a name to watch for the future.
Before I leave you, I have to share this, a sublime illustration of how in tune with his subject young Morris is, how he manages to evoke the cold, cold sea to such a point where you can damn near taste the salt in your mouth. The double page spread of the herring whirling and chasing through the water, dazzling patterns as the sun catches the little silver darlings, as they wheel and glide, and swim headlong into the nets, captured, trapped, and Morris zooms closer, closer, closer, from school to group to fish to face to eye …. and then ‘Danny’…
Will Morris will be in conversation with Edward Ross at the Edinburgh International Book Festival’s Stripped comics strand on Friday 23rd of August.