Book review: Windswept — The Story of Wind and Weather by Marq de Villiers

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In almost every way, Marq de Villiers’s Windswept — The Story of Wind and Weather is a fascinating book. But I’ll be honest; without University of King’s College MFA director Don Sedgwick’s recommendation, I’m not sure that I would have included Windswept among my first-term must-reads.

Yet it proved an inspired choice. It brought to mind the Aubrey and Maturin books by Patrick O’Brian, and how one can sometimes find joy in unexpected places. There, I became fascinated with weather, and how everything from the lightest zephyrs to the darkest gales affected life in the days of wooden ships and iron men.

Within just a few minutes of starting Windswept, you know that you’re in the hands of a master craftsman, and often it was fun to just let the cadence of a few paragraphs carry you along like a fresh breeze across the starboard bow. And if I were just reading by chance or serendipity, I might not have looked for more than an entertainment, or the opportunity to lifted out of the mundane by thoughtful prose.

But this is a book best read with intent, so I consumed slowly and mindfully. My first conclusion is that de Villiers rich, effortless prose is anything but effortless. I am confident that every paragraph has been written, and then rewritten, and then polished until it shines like a mariner’s astrolab. By its very nature, Windswept demanded an experienced hand on the tiller. In the hands of less accomplished soul, some pedantic junior officer from the night watch, it would have been a boring regurgitation of facts. But this was riveting, detailed storytelling about a subject few people even think about.

With each chapter, I found myself more enamored with the story and with the vessel taking me on my journey. On one hand, the structure of Windswept was seamless, and seemingly guileless. It felt like a casual, relaxed conversation among junior officers in the mess but, having met Marq as a mentor my my MFA program, I suspect that Windswept is nothing of the sort. I am confident that this author has been poring over the charts, and that he plots his work meticulously, doting on every word and phrase. Nothing is wasted, nothing superfluous.

I felt the same about the book’s structure. Here, I felt like a midshipman, somewhat out of my element, looking from the mains’ls to the topgallants, trying to discern the complicated rigging, to find sense in the trim. I’ve found that’s not an uncommon feeling. I can’t always tell why this section of some book belongs in chapter 3, as opposed to chapter 7, but I found myself able to discern anchors that ground the narrative. With the nonfiction I’ve read this year, I’ve become far less beholden to a linear structure because I’m learning how repeating elements can provide handholds when scenes are capricious and the deck shifting underfoot.

Importantly, de Villier, winner of a Governor-General’s Medal for nonfiction, has a fine grasp of science, and I enjoyed his distillations — in areas where our expertise overlapped — for nonscientific readers. It’s very well done. About the only time my brows furrowed occurred when perusing the bibliography. On a few occasions, de Villiers sourced articles in the popular media that seemed less competent at handling the science than his high standards would suggest. It’s as if a graceful tack wasn’t handled deftly as one might expect from a ship of the line.

Nevertheless, I’m looking forward to reading more of de Villiers, especially Water — The Fate of Our Most Precious Resource and The Heartbreak Grape.

I would heartily recommend Windswept to all readers of great creative nonfiction. Everything is shipshape, like a barquentine under full sail, elegant and beautiful to the eye and ear as the wind pushes her to a sweet and rousing 12 knots.

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