Driftwood by Harper Fox, narrated by Chris Clog

A sleeping or unconscious man lies on the sand, only his head (face in profile) and right shoulder/arm are in view. He appears to be under shallow clear water.Why I read it:  After listening to Priddy’s Tale recently I went and bought a few more of Harper Fox’s audiobooks.I was especially keen to listen to more of Chris Clog.

Content warning: Description of sexual violence and abuse.

What it’s about: (from Goodreads)  What the tide washes in, the past can sweep away.

All Dr. Tom Penrose wants is his old life back. He’s home in Cornwall after a hellish tour of duty in Afghanistan, but while the village is the same, he isn’t. His grip on his control is fragile, and it slips dangerously when Flynn Summers explodes into his life. The vision in tight neoprene nearly wipes them both out in a surfing mishaps and shatters Tom’s lonely peace.

Flynn is a crash-and-burn in progress, one of only two survivors of a devastating rescue helicopter crash that killed his crew. His carefree charm is merely a cover for the messed-up soul within. The sparks between him and Tom are the first light he’s seen in a long, dark tunnel of self-recrimination, which includes living in sexual thrall to fellow crash survivor and former co-pilot, Robert.

As their attraction burns through spring and into summer, Tom must confront not only his own shadows, but Flynn’s before the past rises up to swallow his lover whole.

What worked for me (and what didn’t):  I’m generally not a fan of cheating in romance. Even if the person being cheated on is a jerk. Which just goes to show that there are exceptions to every rule because I really didn’t have a problem with it here. Perhaps that was because it became apparent that the relationship Flynn and Robert have is not based on consent. Robert is far worse than just a jerk. The author deftly and cleverly shows the unhealthy nature of the relationship while also showing why Flynn stays so long. It’s complicated. There is no judgement in it. It’s sad and scary and it felt realistic, even in the somewhat heightened melodrama of the plot.

Tom Penrose is the village doctor in a small Cornish town. He’s coping with his own demons after returning from the war in Afghanistan and lives a fairly reclusive life with only his Irish wolfhound dog, Belle, for company. He meets Flynn on the beach one morning after Flynn is wiped out by a big wave when surfing. Tom, being the caretaker he is, goes into the water to help. There is a clear connection between the two men (Belle immediately loves Flynn which is, of course, a SIGN) but nothing more really happens. Tom is called away to assist one of his patients who is suicidal after his own war experience and their moment is lost.

Flynn is a member of the Navy SAR team located at a nearby base, and a former pilot. He was working out of Portsmouth in maritime security (drugs and weaponry) when his helicopter crashed into the sea. Flynn and his copilot, Robert, were the only survivors. Since the crash, Flynn has been unable to fly. Racked with guilt over a crash he cannot remember, he takes risks with himself such as surfing ridiculous waves alone.

Even though Flynn is in a relationship with Robert, it is obviously troubled. After an altercation at a pub between Robert and Tom, Robert effectively gives Flynn a hall pass and Tom and Flynn end up at Tom’s house. It becomes apparent to Tom that there is something very messed up about the physical relationship between Flynn and Robert and he is alarmed for this man he has come to quickly care about.

Flynn and Tom are drawn to each other over and again, despite Robert’s threats and violence. Flynn is trying to get away from Robert but they have a long and complicated history; for one thing, Robert saved his life in the crash and for another, Robert paid for Flynn’s treatment out of his own pocket when the Navy did not provide sufficient psychological therapy. Flynn feels beholden and unworthy and owned and everything is messed up within him. He is uncertain of what he is worth but Tom helps him begin to see that he is worth more than what Robert is giving him, even if it feels disloyal to leave.

As Tom and Flynn become closer, Tom also comes alive again after a long period of emotional hibernation. His own neuroses are challenged and he starts to take responsibility for what has clearly become an alcohol problem. In helping his friend, Victor, in his battle to receive compensation from the Army for Gulf War Syndrome, Tom finds some purpose. Even as he has felt like he has only gone through the motions in the two years since he returned to Cornwall, he has nevertheless made good friends – only he hasn’t realised it. As the story progresses, he opens his eyes to the community he has around him and they offer their own help and assistance when things get very grim late in the piece.

Both Tom and Flynn are broken and have significant baggage. Neither are in what one would call “good working order”. But their broken pieces fit and there is a sympatico between them that changes each man for the better. They are not fixed by true love. They still have battles to fight and trauma to recover from (if they are ever fully able to), but they are better able to cope together as they care for one another, they take better care of themselves.

I’m not sure if Harper Fox has ever written a “happy” book. I think I’d have cognitive dissonance if I ever read one. She does melancholy so very well. There is a poignancy to the words and a subtext of sadness and despair combined with slowly burgeoning hope. Like Priddy’s Tale, Driftwood‘s vibe stayed with me long after I finished listening and drew me back again and again.

What else? Chris Clog’s narration was sublime. The perfect combination of author and narrator, bringing the story to life in my ears. I can’t be sure, but it’s very likely I was as forgiving of some of Flynn’s actions (with Tom) because of the way Mr. Clog portrayed him.

My only real complaint about the narration, and it is a relatively small one, is that, as in Priddy’s Tale, there were times when I couldn’t distinguish between Tom and Flynn when they were talking. Sometimes I had to rely on dialogue tags and context to work out who was saying what. And it was not always immediately apparent when a line was an internal thought or spoken aloud. However, the pluses more than made up for the minuses and much of the time Tom and Flynn did sound distinctly different.

There is some tough subject matter in the book. Not a lot of detail but enough to paint a clear enough picture of an abusive relationship. I’d have liked Flynn to be getting some kind of trauma therapy after Robert’s violence to him. If he did, the book didn’t say however. There was acknowledgement of trauma but I couldn’t help but wonder whether it would have been greater had Flynn been a woman. Perhaps that is unfair though.

In any event, Driftwood was another very special story. Even though it took place over a very short space of time and there was some unprotected sex which was alarming in the circumstances, I totally bought into the romance and the connection between Flynn and Tom. There is a HEA but things looked very dicey indeed for a while there. I knew I was in safe hands but I still worried that it would all end up horribly wrong as the tension ratcheted up – which I guess indicates exactly how caught up in the story I was.

Grade: A-


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