Sea of Whispers

They told her she was a dreamer, that the pictures she saw were an illusion, that sea glass could not tell a story; but this was a different kind of story . . .

Hetty’s always been a loner, haunted by loss and at odds with the community on the remote island of Mora. But when a small boat crashes upon the rocks, she is the first to help with the search for survivors. There is only one: a frail old woman, barely alive. But disaster comes with her and it is clear to many that the woman is the bringer of evil prophesied by old Per.

But Hetty defends her. She has seen the woman’s face before when it darkened a piece of sea glass and now she sees new images that tell of the woman’s past and a burden too great to bear – and something of her own pain too, something she’s sensed in the whispers from the sea. Even now she can hear them, calling her. As the islanders grow hostile, Hetty knows what she must do.


‘Sea of Whispers, like most of my stories, began long before I put down any words. I started writing the novel in 2011 but the images of sea glass that haunt the dreams of fifteen-year-old Hetty came many years before that when I was on holiday on the island of Bryher in the Scillies and my wife said that she wanted to go down to the beach to see if there was any sea glass worth collecting. There weren’t any decent pieces – just a few nondescript shards from a broken bottle which we left on the sand – but as we walked about the beach searching, a picture slipped into the story-making part of my mind: of beautiful sea glass washed up on the shore; and then I forgot about it and went away and for several years wrote other stories. By the time 2011 had come along and Hetty’s story was whispering inside my head and demanding to be written, I found that the pictures of sea glass had returned, together with echoes from my life that I knew would affect the way I approached the book. The novel took a long time to write, there were many different drafts, and the mystical, elegiac nature of the story made it an emotional tale to tell. Hetty is a strong-minded yet highly sensitive girl and I found myself anxious to do her justice as she struggles to come to terms with her ancient grief, conquer her doubts and stand up to those who mock her. Sea of Whispers is about many things – fear, prejudice, love, loss, hope and more – but ultimately it is the story of a young girl’s courage and her quest to understand the deepest mystery of all.’

Tim Bowler


‘Sea of Whispers is a strong, strong story….elegiac, beautifully written with Bronte-esque descriptions of the wild power of the sea.’
Jill Murphy, Bookbag

‘An evocative, mysterious new novel.’
Fiona Noble, The Bookseller

‘The writing in Sea of Whispers is simple, straightforward and often beautiful – landscapes, characters, events are all brought vividly to life. The pacing is brilliant too, scenes of intense activity or high emotion intercut with much slower-burning sequences. …Just as important is Bowler’s understanding of how tough it is to be stuck between childhood and being an adult. It’s almost worth being a teenager again to enjoy books like his.’
Tony Bradman, The Guardian

‘Highly atmospheric.’
Books for Keeps

‘Compelling, haunting and mysterious.’

‘Sensitive readers who appreciate the genuine gift – and art – of storytelling, impressive style of writing and a deep concept behind a wise and important story, will fall in love with this book.’
School Librarian

‘Tim Bowler’s writing is spare and beautiful, and Sea of Whispers sweeps the reader along to a satisfying and touching ending.’
Katherine Langrish, Armadillo Magazine

‘A very touching story. Reading this book was like a breath of fresh air.’
The Guardian

‘I was caught up by this book and it still lingers in my mind. It’s accomplished writing for accomplished readers.’
Nigel Hinton, Carousel


They told her she was a dreamer, that the pictures she saw were an illusion, that sea glass could not tell a story; but this was a different kind of story. Its thread had been snapped so long ago she had no memory of it, yet the effects had haunted her ever since; and now, fourteen years later, her life was to change again. She’d sensed it already in the whispers from the sea; and here was a new manifestation.

‘You must be able to see it, Tam,’ she said.

He didn’t answer. He just sat there next to her on the cliff-top, staring at the sea glass in her hand. She turned her head and gazed about her: nothing moved on the rocky bluff and a heavy silence hung over the island. She thought of the others down in the bay and wondered why she couldn’t hear them. She felt sure their voices should reach her in this windless calm. She turned back to Tam and saw him watching her face.

‘You’re meant to be looking at the sea glass,’ she said.

‘I can’t see anything in it, Hetty.’

‘I’ll hold it higher.’

She raised the sea glass. It looked dull against the bleak October sky, especially now that the light was fading, but the image was still there: a dark shape floating in the glass, as though breathed there by the sea.

‘Can you see it now?’ she said.

But he was looking at her again.

‘Tam, it’s important.’

‘I won’t see anything,’ he said. ‘I never do.’

‘But the sea glass was blank a moment ago and now it’s got a picture inside it.’

He peered at it again, but she knew he was feigning interest. She lowered the sea glass and closed it inside her hand. He glanced round at her.

‘I haven’t finished looking.’

‘Never mind,’ she said. ‘You’re right. You’re never going to see anything. Nobody ever does.’ She frowned. ‘I’m the only crazy person on Mora.’

Tam pulled his knees into his chest.

‘So what’s the picture this time? Or are you going to keep it to yourself? You’ve got really funny about the sea glass lately. You used to tell me everything.’

She leaned closer to him.

‘I thought I saw the island in it.’

‘This island?’

‘Of course this island.’ She gave him an impatient look. ‘What other island would I be talking about?’

‘You might have meant one of the others.’

‘How could I recognise islands I’ve never been to?’

‘You know what they all look like. My father’s described them to you enough times.’

‘I meant this island,’ she said.

‘But how could you tell it was Mora in the sea glass?’

‘The top was shaped like North Point,’ she said, ‘and there were bits that looked like Scar Cliff and Holm Edge and High Crag and….’

She stopped suddenly.

‘What’s wrong?’ said Tam.

‘I don’t want you to laugh at me over the sea glass.’

‘I’m not going to laugh at you.’

‘Other people do.’

‘I’m not other people, Hetty. You know that.’

He had that expression on his face again: the one that had only started appearing since they turned fifteen. She still wasn’t sure what to do about it. All she knew was that it made her feel awkward – and somehow guilty. She looked down at the ground.

‘It’s not Mora in the sea glass, Tam.’

‘You just said you saw the island.’

‘I said I thought I did. But I was wrong. The picture started out looking like Mora, but then it changed.’

‘Into what?’

‘Doesn’t matter.’ She flicked a small stone over the edge of the cliff, then thrust the sea glass into her pocket. ‘Let’s drop it.’

She turned her head and stared down from the cliff-top. The water below looked steely and still. She ran her eye over the rocky bar that stretched across the mouth of the bay as far as Eel Point. The giant boulders that guarded the anchorage had no work to do in this interminable calm: the sea was unruffled all the way to the horizon. She glanced at The Pride of Mora, sitting at her mooring. The island boat was bedecked with bunting but all the flags hung limp.

‘Looks like most people have arrived,’ said Tam, staring down too.

Hetty looked over the shingle beach. It was crawling with figures. She searched for the spot where she’d found the sea glass that morning and saw Mungo and Duffy splashing stones there with Nessa and Jinty just behind them. Tam’s mother and father wandered past with Anna and Dolly and some of the families from the western cottages. A large crowd had already gathered near the top of the beach.

Tam started counting the figures aloud. Hetty pushed the sound of his voice away and squeezed the sea glass in her pocket, her mind on the image within, and on the stillness of the water below; there was something about it that didn’t feel right.

‘The whole island’s turned out,’ said Tam eventually. ‘Mother said they would. Come on. We’d better get down there.’

He jumped to his feet and reached a hand down to pull her up. She pretended not to see it and scrambled up by herself.

‘Tam, listen,’ she said, ‘you go on ahead, all right?’

‘What for?’

‘I want to take my time going down.’

‘You mean you want to be on your own.’

‘I didn’t say that.’

‘Have I upset you over the sea glass?’

‘No, of course not.’ She glanced over at the darkening sea, then back at Tam. ‘I just want a bit of time to think, all right?’

He shrugged.

‘If you say so. But don’t take too long or you’ll miss Per’s speech.’

‘I was half-hoping I would.’

‘You mustn’t, Hetty. You know that. We both mustn’t. My mother and father gave me a lecture about it. And you must have got one from Grandy.’

Hetty remembered her grandmother’s words over breakfast.

‘I don’t want to hear the old buzzard’s speech either, girl, but he’s the oldest person on Mora and the only one to make it to a hundred, so we’ve both got to be at the party and that’s that. And try not to look bored when the old boy pipes up. I know you don’t like each other, but it’s his big day and if you can’t celebrate that, then think of The Pride of Mora and remember it’s her birthday too. And she really is something worth celebrating. Now go and tidy your room.’

‘I’ll see you down there,’ said Tam, and he ran off down the path.

Hetty waited till he’d disappeared from view, then made her way down to the plateau of Broken Tooth Ridge. The bay below her was growing darker by the minute but lights were now moving over the beach, and at the top of the shingle, where the dinghies and small craft had been pulled beyond the tidemark, she could see a fire burning and figures packed around it. The smell of roasting meat wafted up to her.

She felt in her pocket for the sea glass again, thinking of the image swimming inside it, and of the other images, the ones that had never come, in spite of her years of searching; and she thought of the sea again, and the secrets it was keeping from her. The figures on the beach were more shadowy now, but the groupings were so familiar she could still see who was who.

Old Per was standing with Gregor, Harold and his other codger friends, plus Lorna and some of the older women, though not Grandy, Anna or Dolly; they were busy with the fire. Tam was larking about with Mungo, Duffy and the girls, and some of the gang from North Point. She walked on down the path and didn’t stop till she’d reached the little quay tucked into the edge of the bay.

The voices of the others were audible now and it was clear that the speeches had not yet started. She stared over at the figures by the fire, then on an impulse wandered down to the end of the landing stage, pulled out the sea glass, and searched again for the image she had seen inside it. She felt sure it would not be there: the pictures never stayed for long, and some vanished within seconds. Yet to her surprise, it was still visible, even in the darkness: not a picture of Mora as she had first thought, but of a face peering back at her. She heard a whisper from the sea and looked up.

Nothing moved upon the water. She stared about her, shivering slightly. Over to the right, the shingle beach curved away into the shoulder of the cliff, the fire crackling half-way along it. To her left, all was still. No waves lapped against the base of Crab Rock at the eastern extremity of the land. Ahead of her, the mouth of the bay opened to the approaching night. A light swell passed through it and died on the boulders of Eel Point. The Pride of Mora did not stir. Hetty squeezed the sea glass again.

‘It’s starting,’ she murmured.


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