Sea Bean by Sally Huband

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Reviewed by Hayley Anderton

This is a book I’ve been anticipating for a couple of years. I think I first heard about it via Stephen Rutt, a nature writer I greatly admire; if he was enthusiastic, I was intrigued. Around the same time, I came across a couple of Huband’s pieces in anthologies, such as Antlers of Water, and was properly hooked. She’s a remarkable writer – it’s no surprise that she won a Scottish Book Trust new writers award in 2017. Part of that award was mentorship from Sara Maitland, another writer I have a lot of time for; it’s another link in the chain of connections which characterise this book. 

When I finally saw a notice for Sea Bean in The Bookseller it focused on trauma and healing – which are certainly elements of this book, but far from its whole story, and to frame it primarily in those terms does the book a disservice in my opinion. A much more accurate, and I hope enticing, way to describe it is as an exploration of interconnections. 

My first connection with Sea Bean is that Huband lives in Shetland, close to where I grew up. The second came when I opened the envelope my proof copy came in; it had a postcard with a lino cut of a message in a bottle. A few years ago, my father found a bottle on a Shetland beach that allowed him to renovate an old phone box. It seemed like a good omen – and later I found his story alluded to – another connection. 

Huband moved to Shetland in 2011 with her husband and baby son. The house they’ve been living in isn’t child friendly and they’re struggling to find another one. Motherhood doesn’t appear to be compatible with progression in her academic career either, so when her husband is offered a job in Shetland it sounds like it was an easy decision to go. 

Unfortunately for Sally the changes to come are more profound than she might reasonably have expected. Pregnancy triggers chronic illness and her hopes of finding a relevant job that would cover the cost of childcare don’t materialise. It’s a difficult period of readjustment and reinvention that will be broadly familiar to many, maybe all, woman (and plenty of men too). The specifics are unique to each of us, but the experience of compromise is universal and falls particularly heavily on mothers.

The way Huband writes about undoubtedly difficult things is matter of fact and honest. I’d say brave, but that has a condescending ring to it which feels wrong to me. Unselfish might be a better description, as the more personal episodes seem to me to be shared in the spirit of letting others know they are not alone if they’ve felt the same.

It’s the sea that connects islands and island communities, and it is the sea, or more specifically beach combing, that is the conduit for Sally to move forward. It starts with curiosity about the things she finds on her walks, and volunteering for wildlife monitoring projects, both of which build webs of connection within Shetland and far beyond it. She writes and learns, contributes, and makes contacts that take her to Orkney, Faroe, and Texel with and without her family, and all the time there’s the hope of finding one particular object on the shoreline – a sea bean; the seed of a tropical plant that has crossed oceans before being washed up on a foreign beach.

I will read anything with a Shetland connection, but this is easily one of the best books on Island life I’ve come across. It’s the acknowledgement that something can feel like freedom and be oppressive at the same time (distance, being surrounded by the sea, and above all the weather), the challenges of maintaining personal integrity and building a community of care in what can sometimes be a stifling community of place. Sally has spoken out on contentious local issues where there’s real pressure to remain silent, but her voice amongst others has led to real and positive change.

Her succinct summery of what’s happening with the local windfarm development is an example of something that’s proved beyond the control of local people to change. The power generated will be cabled down to mainland Scotland, Shetland will be left to deal with the consequences of becoming an industrialised landscape just as its beaches collect the consequent rubbish of other industries. 

There’s also much to be hopeful about here. A generation that both notices and cares about the changes it’s seeing in climate and environment. Small signs of things that can change for the better and joy in the things that can be saved, and overall, the author’s enduring curiosity; for the islands she has made home, their history, folklore, wildlife, for the wider world beyond, and for all the connections it brings. It’s a remarkable book full of the resilience of islanders and women, truly something to celebrate. 

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Sally Huband, Sea Bean (Hutchinson Heinemann 2023). 978-1529152470, 334pp., hardback.

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