Barbarian Days: a Surfing Life by William Finnegan, review: Waves of emotion in a compelling surfing memoir

Above all it is an act of homage to ocean gods both merciless and majestic

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“At 13 I had mostly stopped believing in God,” declares William Finnegan early on here. “It left a hole in my world, a feeling that I’d been abandoned.” The bereft teenager chooses to fill the vacuum with the ocean: “uncaring, endlessly dangerous, power beyond measure”. Another god, in other words.

He begins this compelling memoir with an account of a childhood growing up in Hawaii, where his liberal film-making parents had scarpered following a brush with McCarthy inquisitors. His school days are spent adjusting to a racially baffling new environment, where he is regularly clouted by bullies and shunned by pidgin-speaking locals. The only escape from this unhappy mix is in the surf, where a decent apprenticeship in Californian swells serves him well in the line-up.

His home is happy, his parents loving but William is a seeker and not to be satisfied with such humdrum comforts. Life changes when he meets Bryan di Salvatore over a copy of Ulysses (naturally). The two share a precocious love of literature as well as a passion for surfing and set off on a grand tour in search of the perfect wave.

This arduous quest (and believe me, arduous hardly touches the edge of their privations) takes them through Polynesia, Australia and Indonesia. Paradise is eventually gained in Taravua, Fiji.

“The wave had a thousand moods… At six feet it was the best either of us had ever seen. Its roaring, sparkling depths and vaulted ceiling like some kind of recurring miracle.”

The narrative momentum begins to subside a little after this epiphany. The two travellers bicker like an old married couple and Finnegan begins to doubt his faith, as at the ripe old age of 28 he is sleeping rough on a snake-infested beach, adrift from all those he loves. He washes up in apartheid South Africa and finds reason to connect anew to the human race at the front of a classroom.

Finnegan finally wends his way home to the States and carves out a career as a war reporter, a role he mentions only in passing but for which he has achieved considerable acclaim. From here it is but a short hop to marriage and parenthood.

Barbarian Days assumes no specialist knowledge, though it might test the attention span of those without. Every wave is recalled with brilliant clarity, the exhilaration of every adrenaline-charged take off relived, every wipeout laid bare. It is a thrilling mix of travelogue and adventure yarn, recalling Jack London with its fearless intrepidity. But above all it is an act of homage to ocean gods both merciless and majestic.

Order for £13.49 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030