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The Memory of Water

by Allen Smutylo

“Since childhood I’ve been both drawn to water and frightened by it,” writes Allen Smutylo, a Canadian adventurer, writer, and artist who has spent 40 years of his professional life exploring the extremes of the Earth and his psyche. His travels around the globe come alive in the 10 autobiographical stories that make up this book.

Rich in detail, the text is augmented by 60 colour plates of Smutylo’s own artwork, thoughtfully arranged throughout. Following a heart-wrenching seal killing under desperate circumstances off Bylot Island, the author watches his “paddle blade dip and pull through another creature’s blood.” Turning the page, the reader encounters a painting of a polar bear, close-up and in profile, swimming through blood-red water. The image adds weight, depth, and a certain timelessness to the accompanying text.

]\Kayaking expeditions in the Arctic dramatize the lengths to which the author is prepared to go in pursuit of adventure. In “East Greenland, 1991,” Smutylo surveys the history of the “kayak hunter’s world” and the marvel of the kayak itself, an important motif in his art at the time. He remarks on the way artists “use embellishment to unlock doors of perception, to see things in a new light, to tap the creative muse.”

In addition to the physical risks he takes, Smutylo also takes risks in his writing, especially when it comes to the use of similes, of which there are many. A “rogue walrus” coming at him “like a one-tonne meat torpedo” adds humour, but comparing a “row of rocks and the bay entrance” to “an empty wall safe with its door ajar” distracts from an otherwise well-wrought image.

Smutylo vividly portrays the human impact on the Arctic, Greenland, Varanasi, the South Pacific, and the Great Lakes. As someone who has “always felt an underlying discomfort with any expedition whose primary goal is a destination,” Smutylo proves to be an entertaining guide.