The Sailor’s Holiday by Eric Linklater (1937)

Another damning review of Eric Linklater! Oh dear!

Review by Sophie H:

The Sailor’s Holiday is made up of a series of short vignettes relating the adventures of sailor Henry Tippus during his time on shore between sea voyages. Throughout the novel Henry finds himself involved in a variety of surreal encounters, from being arrested for trying to sell a stolen daschund by two numerology-obsessed policemen and finding himself sharing a cell with a Mexican knife thrower to rescuing a girl from her obsessive faith-healer father by hoisting her sickbed through a window.

The Sailor’s Holiday has the potential to be an enjoyable picaresque novel but for me its complete lack of plot development or interesting characterisation made it ultimately unsatisfying, even as light-hearted entertainment. Henry’s adventures come and go at break-neck speed, leaving little time for the reader to dwell upon them, and the completely ephemeral nature of the plot makes the book feel flat and uninvolving. There is no change of pace or tone between the stories to keep the reader engaged and Henry’s exploits soon become tiresome rather than amusing.

Another issue is that while Henry is clearly intended as a likeable everyman reacting to the often bizarre world around him, his lack of any real distinguishing characteristics means he is hard to engage with and none of the other characters who we fleetingly meet are really quite interesting enough to make up for this.

Unlike Linklater’s earlier creation Juan whose travels in America and China offer the exotic sights of abroad to the British reader, Henry’s travels take place in picturesque but entirely non-descript English villages, which means the novel lacks any real sense of place. By not taking aim at any clearly defined cultural target the novel lacks any real satirical bite. In fact, the humour is at times so gentle as to be non-existent and most often manifests itself through rather feeble slap-stick – a scene revolving around an exploding washing machine offers a prime example of this.

This style of comedy also sits oddly with the more philosophical tone Linklater occasionally adopts, such as when Henry contemplates love:

“Fidelity was the beauty in which love longed to clothe itself, and so long as he was faithful there would be this shining brightness in his life.”

It’s never very clear whether we’re meant to take lines like this seriously, meaning that the novel often seems an odd mixture of frivolity and sentimentality.

The sketches that make up The Sailor’s Holiday would probably have worked well as a series of newspaper pieces but trying to string them together into a narrative has the effect of highlighting how insubstantial they are. The similarities with the highly popular Juan books left me with the distinct impression that Linklater was happy to keep producing variations on a theme, though with diminishing results. I found it difficult to judge what readers at the time saw in it but the fact it seems to be largely forgotten today doesn’t seem surprising.

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