Harper Collins, £6.99stg
Before Nantucket became the tourist mecca of rich mansions and designer shops we know today, whaling was its main business. In 1819, with whale oil prices climbing, this small island village more than twenty miles out into the Atlantic was on its way to becoming one of the richest towns in America. But with whales becoming fewer and further between the ships began to push out into the unknown, spending longer and longer at sea.
'In the Heart of the Sea' tells the true story of one of the most notorious maritime disasters of the 19th century – the sinking of the whaleship 'Essex' by an enraged spermwhale in the Pacific in November 1820. It is the tale that inspired Herman Melville's classic novel 'Moby Dick'. After the sinking of the ship, twenty sailors took to three small boats on the open sea; only eight survived.
Weaving a tale that is more gripping than Sebastian Junger's recent hit book (and film) 'The Perfect Storm', Philbrick examines the triumph of man over sea in the face of an impossible challenge. Combining the hard scientific facts of starvation, the psychology of cannibalism, historical documentation and the evidence of two survivor's tales with further research on sailing and whaling in the 19th century, Philbrick also profiles the close knit community of people on Nantucket Island who refer to all outsiders as 'coofs'.
With a slow but satisfying build-up as well as a history of what happened afterwards, the core of this story lies in the description of the men's 93 days at sea as they slowly run out of food, water and the will to go on. It is at once fascinating and repulsive. And then there's the quality of the writing: Philbrick has a true gift.
His decision not to insert actual footnotes into the text was a wise one, allowing nothing to distract from the growing horror (and fascination) of the reader. The New York Times described it as " a page turner that can withstand the most conscientious historian's scrutiny." The writing is so good that you will find yourself reading on through the comprehensive notes section at the back, thirsty for more once the book has ended.
'In the Heart of the Sea' is a scholarly work of historical importance, but it reads like a 21st century thriller – you will not want to put it down.