Book Review: Sea Bean and on nature writing through the disabled experience

Trigger warning: small mention of miscarriage

In her first book, Sea Bean, Sally Huband tells the reader stories of the world through the objects and wildlife she encounters on the shoreline in and around Shetland. 

While its subtitle ‘a beachcomber’s search for a magical charm’ suggests whimsy, this book is far from whimsical. The charms and magic are very real and rooted solidly in the ground, and on the ocean. They are the interconnectedness that the author describes and illustrates so deftly in her beautifully written pages. 

The charms are the people she meets and the treasure she finds on the beaches she walks. Each animal and object holds a valuable story or message about the world we are living in today, and life in Shetland, where Huband is all the more aware of her link to the world beyond.

Sea Bean is a clearly written and strongly told narrative of our intertwining with the wild. Writing from a place of knowledge as well as learning, Huband invites the reader to experience the beaches and trips to other islands alongside her. This approach allows for a more honest and authentic conversation about the landscape around us. 

Rather than fantasise about nostalgia or idealise these spaces, Sea Bean treats the reader with the level of straightforwardness I for one very much relished. And there is no loss of lyricism or diminishing of the wonder of place in her approach either. 

In a world that has lost a great deal, authors who write also from this perspective, of having lost, are perhaps well placed in leading readers who may not have endured such hardship regarding current threats to the environment. Although in 2023 it is hard to imagine there are many who haven’t weathered poorly in recent years.

Throughout Sea Bean, Huband relates her personal experiences to encounters and finds on the beach. Each is done tenderly and unflinchingly. From the unhatched egg cases of the small spotted catshark washed up, untethered, and her experience of miscarriage, to the seal pup washed out on an unexpected wave, and her own anxieties about her children returning to school following the start of the pandemic.

Huband’s own connection is illustrated with a light touch but with strength and depth.  The narrative of her life experience, as a woman who developed a chronic illness as she experienced motherhood – palindromic rheumatism triggered by the birth of her first child. 

Huband highlights multiple themes, associated closely with the natural world, the wild and the domestic. The toxins accumulating in our bodies, for example, where British women ‘have some of the highest concentrations of flame retardants in their breast milk in the world’, as chemicals long since banned in agriculture continue to disseminate and pollute our seas. 

It’s an arresting set of statistics. We are all a part of the same ecosystem, we poison our seas as we poison ourselves.

Sea Bean brings the reader closer to the understanding of and proximity to our own vulnerabilities and the wildlife that Huband encounters: 

I’ve come to think of the ocean as an archive of sorts. Every now and then, it offers up an object that makes me see something that I might have otherwise ignored.’ (p197).

Living with chronic illness I have a particular interest in the work of writers like Sally Huband, who are drawing on their lived experiences in the widest sense, of the personal and professional, and how each interact. And I am not an impartial reader. 

I have in recent years been connecting with authors like Sally, who live with chronic illness and disability, and write about the natural world. I have been running a project, Moving Mountains, and compiling an anthology of the same title, of new writing by these authors which will be out in autumn this year. 

I am delighted to be reading, not just Sea Bean, but Victoria Bennett’s All My Wild Mothers, and am looking forward to Polly Atkin’s Some Of Us Just Fall (July 2023), as well as forthcoming books and publications by Cat Chong, Khairani Barokka, Louisa Adjoa Parker, Carol Donaldson, Kate Davis and Kerri Andrews, all of whom also have new work in the forthcoming anthology. 

Moving Mountains, from the outset, has been about connecting with the world around us, with ourselves, and each other, as people who are little able to forget the bodies that we live in do. 

Those of us who live with illness and disability may be particularly attuned to the world around us: be that because our pain levels are influenced by atmospheric pressure, our pace and gait determined by the solidness of the ground underfoot, or some other reason which reminds us we are not separate from, but very much connected to the environment we live in. 

The loss we endure in relation to our bodies feels very much akin to the loss we are witnessing in the world around us. We cannot get these things back, but we can celebrate and protect what is left and work towards something new that fosters a more compassionate future. Disabled and chronically ill writers have a great deal to contribute to this.

Sea Bean is one of many beautiful messages in bottles travelling the oceans, raising crucial questions and leading its readers to look again at the world around us.

Sea Bean will be published by Hutchison and Heinemann in April 2023 and is available to pre-order now

Moving Mountains will be published by Footnote on October 26th 2023 and preorder will be available soon from here

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