Science writer Sabrina Imbler’s essay collection combines autobiographical musings with striking accounts of the weirder proclivities of various sea creatures, from jellyfish to sturgeon, cuttlefish to whales.
Unfortunately, the two registers often don’t fit together. There is a pleasingly close description of some unidentified oceanic blobs that are “firm yet gelatinous, ovoid and transparent” and “looked like raindrops, or tears, water in a state of falling”. These blobs rise in swarms depending on the current and the waves, but the mystery of the swarming blobs remains unresolved and pivots to a description of youthful activism: “Every June in New York, we swarm… Our shirts, if we wear them, are emblazoned with the conditions of a world we would rather live in: without Terfs, without Ice [Immigration and Customs Enforcement], without imperialism.”
Watch out for the bit where humble pet goldfish are released into open water and all hell breaks loose
The personal reveries frequently cross the subtle line between candour and solipsism, the cute and the gauche, artlessness and shallowness, sincerity and cringeworthiness. Instances of romantic awakening, admissions of self-loathing, explorations of sexuality and contemplations of racial identity (Imbler is mixed race) convey personal pain but ultimately don’t strike home with much force or edge. One exception is a powerful chapter called Beware the Sand Striker, which combines a study of predators’ strategies in the natural world with incidents of male violence and harassment in the author’s own life, as well as those reported in public #MeToo testimonies.
Perhaps any human would pale in comparison to the wonders of the sea creatures Imbler describes with vividness and insight. Watch out for the bit where humble pet goldfish are released into open water and all hell breaks loose or for the lovely, bold descriptions of sturgeon, whose “mountainous scutes and chin bristles jut out like stalactites” and who “glide aimlessly, with an ossified kind of grace”.
Imbler is not a memoirist (yet) but a gifted science and nature writer, capable of describing sea creatures with knowledge, originality and supple poeticism.
My Life in Sea Creatures by Sabrina Imbler is published by Chatto & Windus (£16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply