Book Review of Sea Bean by Sally Huband – A powerful journey of sea and self, trial and hope on Shetland

Sea Bean by Sally Huband is a powerful journey of sea and self, trial and hope on Shetland. Cathy at Kemptown Bookshop writes this book review.

If a seed falls from a vine in the tropics, travels across the ocean and arrives intact on the shores of the north-east Atlantic, it is known as a sea bean. They have been used as a magical charm for more than a thousand years. 

Sally Huband’s search for a sea bean begins not long after she moves to the windswept archipelago of Shetland with her husband and young son. Struggling with the island’s remoteness and severe weather, together with unemployment and a chronic illness which challenges her own sense of identity – and gets worse with a second pregnancy – Sally is forced to slow down. 

Feeling isolated by pain and parenthood, she gently explores the windswept beaches.

Slowly she discovers not just a community of other beachcombers and the thrill of finding forgotten treasure and natural curiosities but a link to the rest of the world. For washed up on Shetland’s strandlines are lobster pot tags from Maine, cigarette lighters from Greenland and Iceland and goods from passing container ships. Pecking among these treasures are migrating birds on their journeys across the world. 

Beachcombing opens Sally’s mind up to a world of ancient myths, the area’s fragile ecology and deep human history which takes her on a journey to the Orkney Islands, the Faroes, the Dutch island of Texel and, most importantly, back to herself.

Huband’s writing is at its most powerful when she’s describing Shetland’s natural world. Her descriptions of the ice, the sea and the birds are exquisite. Shaetlan – a language in its own right – is peppered throughout the book, with a handy glossary at the end, lending a real feel of immediacy. The weather reflects her own mental and physical state – she considers at one point that she is waiting to snorkel again until ‘a lull in the wind coincides with a lull in the stormy weather within my body.’

Over the course of the book, Sally casts numerous messages in bottles into the sea as she searches for answers.

But by the end, she recognises that her compulsion to beachcomb is less about what she might find but the success of venturing out in all weathers – and in all physical states – to walk. In the end the journey is more important than the destination. 

Sea Bean is a love letter to island life, a lament to the dwindling numbers of birds, fish and insects in the environment and a reflection of the interconnection between the oceans, communities and ourselves. Part memoir, part nature journal, this book is a message in a bottle to the future. Even if you’ve never read nature writing, then give this is go. It’s a delight from start to finish.  Sea Bean – a beachcomber’s search for a magical charm by Sally Huband is published on 6 April 2023 and will be available at Kemptown Bookshop and all major bookshops. Please shop local and support independent bookshops where you can.

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