AmarettoAmaretto by Joe Upton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amaretto is a beautiful book about a savage environment. Joe Upton purchases an old and decrepit sardine hauler on the Maine coast in the mid-seventies. He doesn’t restore it as a hobby, but to give himself a means of making a living. He does this but ends up living hand-to-mouth, completely dependent on catches.

This was the cusp of an era: fishing involved spotters and dories and seiners and other things I knew nothing of; it was a cooperative endeavour and a dangerous one, with small boats in big seas and navigation equipment that was primitive by today’s standards. But it was also competitive, with fishermen from the little ports that lined that part of the coast guarding their bays.

It was a skill to find fish, to herd them into “sets,” and to keep them there: storms could tear a good set to pieces and one of the most haunting scenes in the book sees a set jammed full of herring trying to escape – with interest also from humpback whales.

What I hadn’t realised was the physicality of the North Atlantic herring: shoals so dense that you can’t find the bottom with a probe; the phosphorescence they cause on the water; the strength they have when they act as one; the noise they make on the water, the smell and the magic of the catch.

The book was published a decade later, when small operations had been all been driven out of the business by larger industrial-scale trawlers, and the romance and mystery were no more. I was not able to track down what became of the author, of whom I’d like to know more. Because for me, this haunting and dramatic book was a revelation.

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