Book Review – Estuary: Out from London to the Sea by Rachel Lichtenstein

Estuary Rachel Lichtenstein (177x285)

Genre: Non-Fiction, Local History

Publishing Info: 2017 by Penguin Books (originally in 2016 by Hamish Hamilton)

Pages: 328

Star Rating: 4/5

Back Cover Summary:

The Thames Estuary is both a waterway and an edgeland of civilization. Over centuries it has been swept back and forth by tides of history, commerce, tradition, piracy, war, art, and, of course, the weather and currents which make it a danger to the innocent and experienced alike. Inspired by its eerie beauty, Rachel Lichteinstein offers a powerful and moving odyssey through this haunting landscape – and tells the story of the people who have chosen to work, live and love on and beside the endlessly restless waters they dare to call home.

In her enlightening focus on the stories of those who make a living off the Thames Estuary, Rachel Lichtenstein brings the voices of those individuals to life, whilst revealing her own experiences of travelling on this stretch.

This, along with Peter Caton’s Essex Coast Walk, were birthday presents from my Dad that I am afraid to say had not been read since I received them in October. Having read Caton’s exploration of the Essex coastline, it piqued my interest in the area in which I grew up and currently reside in. This has a different flavour and perspective than Caton’s book but it is still rich in quality and detail when it comes to trekking through the events that have shaped this stretch of water.

Estuary is at its strongest when the author solely focuses on the colourful characters that inhabit the area, from fishermen to dockers to cruise ship terminal receptionists. Each chapter looks at a different aspect of the area and the stories of those interviewed are entwined deeply within it. For the most part they are rich in detail and add another viewpoint for the readers to engage with, particularly those in the first half of the ‘Encounters’ section.

The second half of this has slightly less detail, with the pages per chapter shrinking, and also sees the author revisit individuals met earlier in the book, thus reducing the amount of new information that we are provided with. These are only minor quibbles though and the excellent accompanying photography provided by Simon Fowler and James Price gives us yet another dimension to access and these help to bring the stories even further to life.

The ‘Encounters’ section is book ended between two voyages that the author undertakes that take her and the readers from London to the outer reaches of the estuary. These are rich in description in their own right but arguably could have removed the need for introduction and prologue chapters, such is their strength at being able to open and close the journey of the book. It makes her investigation far more personal, so that the documentary aspect of this doesn’t feel too detached. There is a clear sense, from reading these two sections together, that the author has included details of people and places that she has gained in knowledge in from her research, thus bringing to a close her personal journey, as well as the book’s.

This quality actually melds pretty well with the focus of the book on the personal and the human, instead of the industrial and historical. The latter two are used occasionally to flesh out details or to make a certain point of view more prominent but the focus is on the human. I do however wish that the middle section solely looked at those being interviewed and have the author’s personal experiences as part of the book ends; sometimes a slightly unnecessary event enters that slightly throws the trajectory of the text. Again, this is a very minor note to make and as a whole, the balance between the personal and the factual is one of this book’s strengths.

Estuary is a great book that isn’t your usual geographical or travel fare. The decision to focus on the lives of the people who surround this stretch of water makes it far more colourful and rich in detail than if it was simply factual. It has definitely boosted my interest in finding out more about my local area and I must remember to thank my Dad for giving this book to me.

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