Maritime tales of the deep: Lizzie Pook introduces our best books about the sea

Author of Moonlight and the Pearler's Daughter, Lizzie Pook explores our emotional relationship to the sea, and reveals our favourite ocean-going tales about the deep.

It’s a muse for many authors and often a character in its own right, but what is it about the sea that enthralls us? An obsession for cultures both modern and ancient, the power of the shifting sea has mesmerised us for eons. Whether it's a fear of the alien deep, or a love for sailing the open ocean, stories about the sea continue to captivate writers throughout literature. 

In 1886 Australia, Charles Brightwell is Bannin Bay's most prolific pearler. Diving at the bottom of the ocean for priceless mother-of-pearl shells, the job comes with significant dangers – and when he goes missing at sea, only his daughter Elizabeth suspects that something much darker lurks beneath the pearling community. Lizzie Pook's stunning debut Moonlight and the Pearler's Daughter dives into the mysterious world of deep-sea pearl diving,  and here she reveals her own indescribable relationship with the sea, along with our favourite fictional tales about the deep blue. 

When I think of the sea, my heart quickens in my chest. The sentiment it evokes is vague and undefinable – not quite terror, not quite awe, but something slippery tinged with melancholy.   

Some of my earliest memories involve the sea: bucket-and-spade holidays with ice cream dripping onto sticky chins; battling to wield a boogie board amidst the weeds on wind-scoured beaches. In these memories, the ocean rears large as a grounding but imposing presence. One that speaks just as much to menace as it does to joy.

When I think of the sea, my heart quickens in my chest.

Science suggests that we are evolutionarily drawn to water. After all, we have relied on it for hundreds of thousands of years for trade, transport and food. Not only that, but our ancestors literally came from the sea, evolving from swimming to crawling then eventually walking. The ocean is within us – a part of all our histories.

It is intertwined with our emotions too, something we long for at times of upheaval and anxiety – a reminder that, whatever happens in the world, we’ll still have the waves and salt and tides. The sea can make us feel small and insignificant, or it can lend us its power to help us battle through pain or grief.   

Writers have long been inspired by the sea – from Jules Verne and Herman Melville, to Plath, Shakespeare and Homer. You’ll find the ocean as a wily, untameable character in many seafaring adventure stories, and it’s a setting that crosses genres, from gothic historical novels to taut contemporary thrillers.

Writing can be elusive and hard to grasp at, and the same goes for reading sometimes, too. But the ocean offers us something vast and magnificent to cling to. Something to inspire us and give us comfort when we need it the most.

While researching my debut, Moonlight and the Pearler’s Daughter – a historical mystery about a young woman searching for her missing father in a lawless pearl-diving town in Western Australia –  the stories I was tugged towards most were those that grabbed us and held us beneath the surface the ocean. When I first learned of the dangers of the pearling industry, I became fascinated with what it might have been like to walk the ocean floor in a heavy diver’s helmet and lead-weighted boots. I could just imagine the suffocating claustrophobia that would come when searching for glimmering mother-of-pearl shells as crocodiles, sharks and sea snakes lurked in the shadows.   

Writing can be elusive and hard to grasp at, and the same goes for reading sometimes, too. But the ocean offers us something vast and magnificent to cling to. Something to inspire us and give us comfort when we need it the most.

Here’s our pick of the very best books about the sea.     

Moonlight and the Pearler's Daughter

by Lizzie Pook

Book cover for Moonlight and the Pearler's Daughter

It's 1886, and the Brightwell family has just arrived at Bannin Bay in Western Australia after a long sea voyage from England. Ten-year-old Eliza has been promised bright pearls, shells like soup plates and good fortunes in a new land. Ten years later, and Eliza's father Charles Brightwell is the most successful pearler on the bay. When he goes missing from his boat at sea, rumours of mutiny and murder swirl across the bay. But Eliza refuses to believe that her father is dead and, in a town mired in corruption, she sets out to find the truth.

Our Wives Under The Sea

by Julia Armfield

Book cover for Our Wives Under The Sea

Leah is back from a perilous and troubling deep sea mission, and Miri is delighted to have her wife home. But Leah has carried the undersea trauma into the couple's domestic life, and it is causing a rupture in their relationship. The debut novel from the author of acclaimed short story collection salt slow, Our Wives Under The Sea is a rich meditation on love, loss and the mysteries of the ocean.

The Lamplighters

by Emma Stonex

Book cover for The Lamplighters

Cornwall, 1972. Three keepers vanish from a remote lighthouse, miles from the shore. The entrance door is locked from the inside. The clocks have stopped. The Principal Keeper’s weather log describes a mighty storm, but the skies have been clear all week.

Twenty years later, the women they left behind are still struggling to move on, when they are given the chance to tell their side of the story . . .

Inspired by true events, this enthralling and suspenseful mystery is a beautifully written exploration of love and grief, perception and reality. 

Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea

by Jules Verne

Book cover for Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea

Illustrated by Édouard Riou.

Three adventurers set out to kill a sea monster, but all is not as it seems. Out in the vast expanse of the Pacific they find not a beast but a submarine - the Nautilus, an advanced craft captained by the enigmatic Captain Nemo. Captured and hauled aboard, they accompany him through coral reefs, shipwrecks, and ancient ruins. There they hunt sharks, and battle giant squid, not realising that the greatest danger is Nemo himself, who will stop at nothing in his quest for vengeance.

This Macmillan Collector's Library edition of Jules Verne's classic Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea also includes an afterword by author David Stuart Davies.

The Mermaid of Black Conch

by Monique Roffey

Book cover for The Mermaid of Black Conch

In 1976, Aycaycia – a young beauty cursed by embittered and envious wives into the form of a mermaid – finds herself entranced by the song of a fisherman. But when their affair is discovered by the tiny Caribbean village he lives in, everyone sees Aycaycia as an opportunity. Floridian father and son Thomas and Hank seek fame and fortune and imagine selling her to the highest bidder, whereas Miss Rain tries to do the right thing despite her family's history of slave ownership. A bittersweet, moving story that combines the magical with the pinpoint real in a heart-wrenching story of love and personal growth. 

Looking for more tales of the deep? In this episode of Book Break, we share more unmissable stories of the sea: