Review: Language of the Sea

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Leo Kemp is an outspoken man who finds himself in a serious situation. A marine biologist whose life is taking a downward spiral, he seems more focused on understanding the seals and not on his wife and daughter.

Leo works in an Institute in Cold Harbor. His students do not seem that enamored with his lectures and often ask questions that are menial and not challenging. Fascinated with seals their existence, how they communicate, live and much more he loses his job at the biology facility when he speaks out against certain policies.

But, Leo wants one more hurrah. Deciding to take his students on one last outing would cost him more than the job he lost. Reflecting on what really matters to him, looking deep inside himself and trying to understand what he really wants, this outing would be life altering not just for him but for many others too.

Forgiveness is not always granted. Accidents happen but not always forgotten. The book opens with a tragedy. The death of Leo and Margot’s son Jacob during a research trip on the Atlantic Ocean would send their lives in different directions. All that was left was his wife and daughter Sam. Was that enough for him or did he thirst for the sea and much more?

Confronting the media and putting himself in the limelight did not endear him to the head of the Cold Harbor Marine Institute. Implying that the private donations and investments in marine research were improperly used, claiming that the monies should target finding out “ the big things that we don’t know.” Based on research about seals and true events surrounding one unique seal, named Hoover, author James McManus relates this history and story of this harbor seal that spoke English. Discussion groups in Leo’s classes centered on questions about the language of seals, the seas in which they live but never about what he thought were the big pictures. Obsessed with seals, thriving on learning more about hem and less about humans, Leo shared the true story about Hoover with his students during his off campus sessions.

Hoover was orphaned and picked up by a fisherman in Maine on May 5, 1971. Alice and George Swallow were the couple that found him and took him home. Hoover was treated as if he was their own child and definitely a member of their family. But, Hoover outgrew the bathtub he lived in and was finally donated to the New England Aquarium. The Aquarium kept copious records of his behavior and on November 12, 1978, seven years later, this seal said his name, Hoover. Hoover was named after the vacuum cleaner, Hoover because he sucked up food as fast as a vacuum cleaner. Hoover was the only non-mammal to speak. But Leo pushed the buttons of those in charge of the Institute, and his outspoken attitude finally did him in.

Leo and Margot married at a young age and were happy for a while. Fun loving, full of life and unpredictable he kept Margot happy until the untimely death of their son, Julian that deeply affected her and changed their lives. Focusing his attention more on the media, creating controversy and the seals, Leo damaged the reputation of the Institute and hence his dismissal.

Freedom of speech and expression can only go so far. When it tarnishes reputations those involved seek more than just answers. Author James MacManus brings to light what happens when one man is dissatisfied with his life, the status quo and wants more than just what’s in front of him. Leo Kemp loves the sea and on this last journey with his students he hopes to record underwater conversations among the seals. But, fate steps in and Leo is thrown overboard by an errant wave and then things spiral out of control.

As Leo’s family learns of his fate and joins in the search for him; Leo begins his trek to shore, joins the seals in the water and listens to underwater chatter of the dolphins, seals and other sea creatures hoping to find land. Taking the reader along with Leo on this seafaring journey the author relates a story of a man truly obsessed with the language of the sea and its inhabitants. While Margot, Buck, and Sam frantically search for any sign of him, Leo is consumed with the seals hoping to learn more about them.

Flashbacks to other nights, groups discussions and different events that led up to this day, both Leo and Margot’s dreamlike fantasy states add to the harsh reality of the story allowing the reader to understand why their life together fell apart.

Leo’s priorities were definitely misplaced. Family, friends and career might have been important at one point but put on the backburner and often held at bay. Leo’s life and only priority was learning how the seals, dolphins and other sea creatures communicated, interacted and lived. Unfortunately for Leo he was born human and not a seal. As Leo is searching for land and Margot for Leo or any sign that he’s alive, the author takes a step back and describes their life before this point.

Also in the mix is his best friend and reporter Sandy who won’t give up on hoping to find Leo and of course the story. Taking a boat to Monomoy Island and retracing Leo’s journey, Sandy hoped to find some answers or even Leo. But, the search ended after three days and the headline read: “Missing at Sea, Presumed Dead.” Some thought he just might be alive. But, his family held his funeral services and now would have to move on with their lives. Where was Leo? Why didn’t he even try to contact anyone to find him? Leo Kemp was one in the same with the seals. Living and breathing the sea and becoming totally assimilated in the lives of these creatures not trying to understand the rationale behind his fate. But, reports of his existence on the sea did not escape his reporter friend and the Herald as observers claimed that they saw a man’s head among a pod of seals. But, would anyone believe this?

As Margot hopes to move on to another life, Sandy, the reporter tries to encourage her stay in Cold Harbor thinking that Leo might turn up. Did she really care or want to know the truth? The vivid descriptions of Leo’s time at sea, watching the whales, hearing their voices, understanding his joys and sorrows. Leo ate the clams, the mussels and sustained his life with the food of the sea. Enjoying his dives the sunsets and much more Leo was finally happy and content. Leo was finally free. One more time Margot and Buck went out on the Antoine to search for Leo. What finally happens you won’t believe. Faith, hope, never giving up Leo is finally found after being missing for 6 weeks. Leo would not divulge anything about his experience. He kept silent.

What happens next and how they get him to speak you will have to learn for yourself. With a surprise ending that you won’t see coming and events that would change the course of many different lives, author James MacManus leaves us with many unanswered questions about Leo, his final destination and the pain he caused so many.

Leo, Margot and Sam moved to Scotland. Leo led and expedition to North Ronaldsay. The rest you will have to learn for yourself. What is Leo’s final fate? Where is Leo Kemp? Ask the seals maybe they will tell you because Leo won’t. The research done for this book was extensive adding to the excitement of the story helping the reader visualize and understand Leo’s journey at sea and his inner most thoughts.

This book gets Five Gold Hoovers: Fran Lewis Reviewer
Thank you for giving me the honor or reading this really interesting and exciting narrative.
Author: James MacManus
Reviewed by Fran Lewis

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