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In 'Sea State,' life gets rocky when a journalist gets involved with her subject

Harper Collins

I just learned a useful new term: "sea state." It describes the condition of the water's surface like, say, an ocean that might be dead calm or roiling with waves.

In Tabitha Lasley's memoir Sea State, which was published earlier this year in the U.K., the term takes on emotional connotations.

Midway through her story, Lasley is floundering in a sea of troubles: She's in love with a slippery married man and she's living on her fast-evaporating savings, while working on a book idea whose subject she can't quite get a hold of. Little wonder. The book she does finally produce — Sea State — turns out to be a peculiar and entrancing blend of memoir and reportage. In it, Lasley chronicles her own breakdown and the breakdown of a way of life for the men who work on oil rigs in the North Sea.

Lasley introduces herself at the opening of this book as a woman who's in her mid-30s and living "a wintry half-life" with a boyfriend who holds her "in contempt." She's working as a reporter for a London magazine, but her parents' backgrounds — lower-middle-class, from Liverpool — set her apart from her colleagues.

Taking a leap into the unknown, Lasley breaks up with her mean boyfriend and leaves her job to move to Aberdeen, Scotland, "the oil capital of Britain." There, she wants to research a book about the masculine, working class culture of oil riggers whose livelihood is threatened by, among other things, the influx of lower-wage workers from other parts of the world.

These guys live double lives: three weeks offshore on giant rigs in the North Sea; three weeks onshore, drinking hard and reacclimating, maybe, to their families. Lasley rents a charmless apartment in Aberdeen which she likens to "a Gulf state, a desert caliphate. Women were rarely seen out alone after dark. It was full of itinerant workers, miles from home and lonely."

For six months, she meets interview subjects by trolling Tinder and hitting bars. Here's how she describes that research experience:

"It was half past one on a Tuesday afternoon, and I was already on my way to being drunk. I'd been circulating around this [bar]room for a few hours now, buying drinks, inviting confidences, like the tipsy hostess of a dour, exclusively male cocktail party. ...

The nature of this work was making me see what it must be like for them. ... Girls are taught to respond to the subtlest social cues, to beat a retreat at the first hint of furrowed brow or crossed arms; boys to develop a benign tone-deafness for the very same signals . ... [T]o latch onto strangers and coax conversation from them ... I had to become a hybrid of sorts. The unthreatening looks of a woman. The impervious core of a man."

Lasley fends off a lot of propositions and hears a lot of vivid stories, many of them about accidents and the lax safety protection for workers offshore. Not only is the oil rig itself "a pressure cooker," one worker tells Lasley, but "the human element felt explosive. A hundred men of varying temperaments, trapped together in a steel box, miles from land, from any sign of civilization."

Lasley's own isolated situation feels similar to being marooned on one of those rigs: She's cut off from her London life and having an all-consuming affair with one of the very first guys she interviews. Ironically, in acting on her ambition to delve deep into the masculine culture of the oil rig workers, Lasley herself winds up, for a time, living the traditional suspended life of a mistress.

Smart about sexual desire and the ease of analyzing — but the difficulty of escaping — familiar gender roles, Sea State offers a close up view of the white, working-class resentments that helped fuel both Brexit and the Trump presidency. As a journalist, Lasley commits the cardinal sin of getting involved with one of her subjects; but as memoirist, her transgression saves Sea State from the tone of faintly anthropological distance that books about the working class often have.

As it turns out, Sea State has more than enough calming introspection and roiling antagonisms to make it well worth the ride.

Copyright 2022 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Maureen Corrigan, book critic for NPR's Fresh Air, is The Nicky and Jamie Grant Distinguished Professor of the Practice in Literary Criticism at Georgetown University. She is an associate editor of and contributor to Mystery and Suspense Writers (Scribner) and the winner of the 1999 Edgar Award for Criticism, presented by the Mystery Writers of America. In 2019, Corrigan was awarded the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing by the National Book Critics Circle.