Yeah, can non-fiction books have shorter titles, please? It’s like German film titles. Anyway, we saw a lot of films based on true stories last year, and most of them were books first, so here we are.
The Finest Hours is a slightly odd book in that it was written by two authors, a collaborative effort based on the fact that the two found they were coincidentally working on the same story at the same time. I honestly couldn’t tell that there were two different voices at work here though, which is good!
The Finest Hours is the story of a worst case scenario from hell: a record-breaking storm and two – two! – oil tankers literally splitting in half on the open sea. And it’s the story of the rescue of every man who could possibly be saved, and of what happened afterwards to both men and ships. It has the feel of a very local story, and I don’t mean that in a bad way. This one awful night is meticulously described and researched, eyewitnesses interviewed, memoirs and local newspaper headlines dug up. It’s (forgive me) charming.
The writers love the story, they’re in awe of the rescuers and survivors, fascinated by the stoic little lifeboat, angered by the industrial failures that led to the splitting of the tankers and the systemic failure to punish the neglect. They’re telling us a story, but really telling it as well.
It’s not a perfect story, of course – the prose is a bit rough in places – but it is a compelling one. The human instinct, I think, is to go immediately to the meat of these kinds of stories, skip to the drama and linger there, and for that reason it’s important to see what comes after, how life resumes. So the authors show us the discomfort of the aftermath, when the heroic actions of the coast guard are used for political ends by a government that knows it needs to show its people some victory in a hard time.
We get to see where the oil tankers go after they’re recovered (no, really, a bit of duct tape and why not) and what the heroes did after, and what happened to the lifeboat (surprisingly eventful even if the happy ending is given away in the prologue).
If you want a story of bravery and people doing right by each other, you could do worse than The Finest Hours. Also, read it curled up somewhere warm, because that storm is brutal.