What sets Lasley apart as a genuinely exceptional writer is her ability to first spot, and then effectively relay, the small yet defining details of a person, scene or experience. She alights on the particular hardness of an erection, the softness of taut skin below a ribcage, the garbled mind on pills, or the fear that can suddenly grip a woman, walking home alone. Her eye for usually imperceptible minutiae is especially sharp when it comes to the physical and linguistic cues that pass between the sexes, along with the inexorable conditions of their interrelations.
Sea State’s writing alone is worth the admission price. Lasley summons up Aberdeen — a city made of “Louisiana avarice and Protestant thrift”, “a desert caliphate” where women were “rarely seen out alone after dark” and “where all the men wore gloves”.
Her interviewees, many of them incomers from Teesside, testify to masculinity in flux. On the rigs, feuds simmer because there are no fights to resolve them, while the rise of mobile phones has “atomised” community offshore.
Reading Lasley’s prose is like having a long conversation with someone highly intelligent, intuitive and more sensitive than she dares let on. Gradually, a picture of the riggers’ life emerges. Their offshore living quarters are so cramped as to drive them near crazy. When you have five men to a cabin, and ten to a bathroom, tiny courtesies loom large: ‘Wipe your spit off the taps when you clean your teeth; mop your piss off the toilet seat; rinse your stubble away.’
Sea State is part reportage, part memoir, and the collision of the two is initially discombobulating – one moment the author is reflecting on the grotesque failures that led to the 1988 Piper Alpha disaster, which killed 167, and the next she is trying to take a photo of her breasts to send Caden on his third week offshore. It nonetheless builds a grey-hued portrait of a ruthless industry, a dour city and a breed of man who thinks nothing of calling a woman a whore for putting her hand on a man’s arm in a pub, and is shocked when she tries to buy a round of drinks. These men, many of whom have girlfriends as well as wives, are not big on self-reflection, yet they talk of home “with an exile’s longing, their perspective skewed by distance”.