Book Review: “Gone to Drift” by Diana McCaulay

“Gone to drift.” What a sweet phrase to describe a fisherman lost at sea. Like the tides and currents that swirl around our island, this young adult novel carries the reader along – floating, spinning and sometimes swerving unexpectedly, like a small boat on the vast face of the ocean. It’s an adventure story, with all the required mystery, confusion and tension. And so we move along with the flow.

Fisherman, Old Harbour Bay. (My photo)
Fishermen and boys playing, Old Harbour Bay. (My photo)

We learn on the first page of the book (and do not worry, I will not reveal any more of the plot than this!) that twelve-year-old Lloyd’s grandfather, Maas Conrad, has gone to drift. He left on an excursion to the far-flung cays of Pedro Bank from his Kingston Harbour fishing village, and did not return. So, Lloyd’s adventure begins: his urgent quest to find his Gramps and bring him home safe. Along the way, he finds new allies, enlists the help of a loyal friend – and finds unexpected obstacles thrown in his path. Now…don’t those close to him want Maas Conrad to be found? If not, why not? The story unfolds as Lloyd begins his search. It takes him in directions he would never have imagined.

Birds, fishing boat and mangroves at Old Harbour Bay. (My photo)
Birds, fishing boat and mangroves at Old Harbour Bay. (My photo)

There is another powerful human voice. It is a lyrical voice, steeped in memories: that of the grandfather himself. He “speaks” in short passages at intervals throughout the story. Although the language is far too refined to be authentic for a fisherman, this is immaterial. Maas Conrad’s reflections on his life, his family and his environment serve a different purpose. One cannot imagine him speaking these words, but rather feeling them. He is sometimes full of regrets. He is always proud and passionate, nurturing a profound love of his natural environment. He talks about his emotions while watching a sunrise over the sea, on his first fishing trip as a young man. He can still see, in his mind’s eye, the changing colors of water and sky on that morning, after a storm. On that first trip, as a boy, Maas Conrad saw dolphins – creatures that are pivotal to the story.

And while Maas Conrad daydreams thus, where is he? If only Lloyd knew.

Sunset, Treasure Beach. (My photo)
Sunset, Treasure Beach. (My photo)

Tradition and culture are strong themes in the book. Maas Conrad’s rural childhood – the old-fashioned children’s games played, relationships cemented, the comfort of a countryside church – appears almost idyllic, contrasting sharply with his grandson’s fractured family life at the same age. In St. Elizabeth (where there are many Taino artifacts to be found to this day) Maas Conrad has an imaginary Arawak friend, a spiritual guide, and a favorite cave.

For Lloyd, home is home (especially when food is available) but it is lacking in warmth. The boy is in many ways a lonely figure. He struggles to understand the world around him, but no one is there to explain much. The adults who cross his path are all pursuing their own separate purposes – including his mother, his “safe harbor” for food and shelter, who nevertheless always seems to have her back turned. Adults pay him very little mind, and if their attention does focus on him, it’s unwanted. Lloyd “had not met many kind men.” The author touches on the dilemma of masculinity (“Manhood is like a squall on the sea”), male aggression and child abuse in modern Jamaica; and then moves on. But simply put, the adults move in ways Lloyd cannot grasp. With one or two exceptions, no one is there to explain anything to him. Yet he is a determined boy who holds to what he believes is right, despite the obstacles he has to clamber over. It’s a struggle, but he uses his wits and with a little invention and courage, he is an under-nourished, ever hungry, weary young hero.

The landscapes of Maas Conrad’s memories (compared to the harsh realities of his grandson’s present) are vividly described. For anyone who knows Treasure Beach, the author captures its essence, sights and smells perfectly: the pond that fills up seasonally with water and crocodiles, the fishing beach, the metallic color of the water. This sense of place is very strong throughout the book, with small details building up into a clear picture – for example, the layout of a Coast Guard ship, its steps and hatches; the shacks and garbage on Middle Cay; the Tun-Up Rum Bar, and the ramshackle Grey Pond Fishing Beach (which is fictional). We are there.

Kingston Harbour at dusk. (My photo)
Kingston Harbour at dusk. (My photo)

Keeping the younger audience in mind, this book teaches powerful messages on marine conservation through a myriad of examples; the value of the mangroves as protectors of the shoreline, for example, and of the “sea eggs” the fishermen often used for bait, that are valuable to the health of the coral reefs. There are references to the pollution of Kingston Harbour and the dynamiting of fish. The environmental messages are not presented in an overly didactic way, however; the lessons are mostly passed on by the grandfather to his grandson, or included in Lloyd’s own observations. Lloyd’s grandfather is respectful of the sea and its inhabitants and follows good fishing practices.

Speaking of audience, I think I am acquiring a taste for young adult literature. Like the best of this genre, “Gone to Drift” is sometimes funny, sometimes touching; but it has an edge to it. A reader of advancing years like myself can enjoy it as much as a teenager would. This story, while reaching out for softer themes of love, understanding and respect, is thankfully unsentimental. It’s a hard life – that’s for sure. Lloyd knows this only too well. And there is a bitter twist in the tale, just at its resolution: “The seventh wave is always bigger.”         

The sea is ever-present. I took this photograph at Port Royal last year (on the open sea side).
The sea is ever-present. I took this photograph at Port Royal last year (on the open sea side).

 Earlier, I mentioned voices. The most powerful voice in this book is the sea itself. The Caribbean Sea moves through the story; it is on every page, and its moods change rapidly. It is mysterious at times, empty and revealing nothing. Perhaps most often, it is filled with unknown dangers, fearful: “a grave.” It is unpredictable, moving and changing. It is sometimes a comfort and a blessing and sometimes a harsh landscape, “unyielding as metal.” It is often beautiful, clear and bright. “The sea gave and it took… The sea was all,” says Maas Conrad in one of his soliloquies.

The famous marine explorer and conservationist Jacques-Yves Cousteau observed: “The sea, once it casts its spell, holds us in its net of wonder forever.” The author captures this magic – astonishment at the sight of dolphins “playing” near the boat, for example, and a trip up Black River, gliding through the waters past huge mangrove roots. But importantly, the author also “joins the dots” as far as humans’ uneasy relationship with both land and sea is concerned.

“I come from a line of fishermen,” says Maas Conrad. He is bound to the sea, and that is that. To me, there is always a kind of fatalism surrounding the sea, and those who depend on it for their livelihood. The stories of the fishermen and their families are of an acceptance of their fate – and of pursuing it to the end, wherever it takes them.

I come from a line of fishermen.” Nothing more needs to be said.

Fishermen, Treasure Beach. (My photo)
Fishermen, Treasure Beach. (My photo)









Author note: 

Diana McCaulay is an award winning Jamaican writer and a lifelong resident of its capital city Kingston. She has written two novels, Dog-Heart (March 2010) and Huracan (July 2012), published by PeepalTree Press. Both novels met with critical acclaim and have broken local publishing records. Dog-Heart won a Gold Medal in the Jamaica Cultural Development Commission’s National Creative Writing Awards (2008), was shortlisted for the Guyana Prize (2011), the IMPAC Dublin Award (2012) and the Saroyan Prize for International Writing (2012). Huracan was also shortlisted for the Saroyan Prize 2014. Gone to Drift, originally entitled The Dolphin Catchers, built on her eponymous 2012 Regional Commonwealth prizewinning short story, which was published by Granta Online. In April 2014, Diana won the Hollick Arvon Prize for a non fiction work in progress, and is working on her fourth book entitled Loving Jamaica: A memoir of place and (not) belonging. Diana founded the Jamaica Environment Trust (JET) in 1991 and still serves as its CEO and guiding light. Information from

Note: “Gone to Drift” is published by Papillote Press in Dominica. It is available at Bookophilia, 92 Hope Road, Kingston 6; at Bookland, 53 Knutsford Boulevard, Kingston 5; and Fontana Pharmacy, Barbican Square, Kingston 8. It is also available from Amazon:

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