The Waves Burn Bright

Iain Maloney

Freight, £9.99

Review by Alastair Mabbott

For all its terrible impact, the Piper Alpha disaster hasn’t yet been confronted in Scottish fiction, so it’s with trepidation that one opens The Waves Burn Bright. One hundred and sixty-seven men died that night in 1988, 61 survived. For the purposes of his novel, Maloney places an extra man on board the platform: his fictional creation Marcus Fraser, a geologist working out of Aberdeen for the oil industry.

We’ve already got to know him through the eyes of his daughter, Carrie, who inherited his fascination with earth sciences and who enjoyed their educational family holidays a lot more than Marcus’s wife, Hannah. On one holiday in Japan, the family was allowed to creep up the side of a volcano, where Carrie banged her head and experienced a vision that set her off on her own career path as a volcanologist. Aptly enough, the ground beneath her feet was anything but stable. Her bickering parents were already becoming distanced from each other and embarking on affairs. The explosion on Piper Alpha merely accelerated the family’s breakdown.

Marcus is one of the lucky few to be helicoptered back to safety, but afterwards he refuses all offers of counselling. Instead, always a man who liked a drink, he takes to the bottle like never before. Hannah is soon gone, into the arms of a new husband, and Carrie puts her ambitions on the back burner for the next few years, remaining in Aberdeen to look after him until, at his urging, she leaves the nest. Their conflicting memories of this period are the final nail in the coffin of their relationship as father and daughter.

In chapters that alternate between different phases of their lives, Carrie is shown advancing in her career, drawn to New Zealand and ultimately to the ring of fire, a string of volcanoes stretched across the Pacific. She ditches an unsuitable boyfriend, of whom her father approved, for a long-term female partner. Back in Aberdeen, Marcus is still self-medicating with alcohol, his only chance of moving forward being the love of his patient new girlfriend Isobel, but he and Carrie are oblivious to what’s going on each other’s lives. Until, that is, Carrie comes to the Granite City to deliver a lecture on geothermal energy, where their paths will doubtless cross. The question is whether they’ve grown enough to reconcile at long last.

It’s hard to depict a real-life and relatively recent disaster like Piper Alpha without the risk of upsetting or offending survivors and relatives of the victims, and Maloney does his best to be respectful, lingering on the horrendous events on the oil and gas platform for only as long as he has to. His main concern is the trauma of the survivors, and he’s crafted a powerful portrayal of how the consequences of such a disruptive event can reverberate through people’s lives for decades afterwards. His characters don’t always behave in the most exemplary way, but they’re consistent, making believable, relatable choices, given the sense of loss that permeates their lives.