by Bella Bathurst
Harper Perennial, $144
There be tales of many a ship's master lured to wreck by 'false lights' hung from the necks of cows, and of half-drowned survivors bludgeoned by 'wreckers' intent on loot. Bella Bathurst, after scouring the shoreline of the British Isles from Land's End to John O'Groats, examining the official record of 30,000 wrecks and interviewing more than 200 people, can find no proof for such stories. The Wreckers is an engrossing book about Britain's relationship with its coast and such maritime terrors as the Goodwin Sands, off the coast of Kent, which swallowed the 1,000-tonne Ogle Castle in an hour, and the Corrievreckan whirlpool, the second largest in the world. Bathurst verges on the poetic in her descriptions of water, and there's saltiness to her writing of a people who fence fields with mahogany and make lintels of whalebone. Wrecks were an important resource for a subsistence folk. But did they really bite the earlobes off corpses and smash fingers to get at jewels and drink themselves to death in orgiastic frenzies on barrels of salvaged whiskey?