An 18-year-old named Havana returns to England from the US to find out about her father, Tom, killed by the police during a left demonstration in the 1960s. She wants simply the truth. But as the plot unfolds she discovers several versions of the man who died: a political hero, an insouciant visionary, a man consumed by personal anger, a mean lover, a man who invited martyrdom.
In the search, Havana becomes deeply involved with her father’s best friend, Barry, who had loved her mother and carries a painful secret he is loathe to reveal.
Tony Garnett writes about love with a tenderness touched by gentle irony, moving between male and female characters with perceptive insight. Marine Ices can be read as a page-turning personal story, yet it also contains, concertina-like, other meanings.
Set initially in the 1980s, during the long and bitter miners’ strike, it backtracks to the 1960s and then fast-forwards to a Climate Camp in the 2000s. Havana’s father Tom had been a Trotskyist; her son Tom becomes an environmental activist. In showing how patterns are reproduced and repeated, Garnett explores how generations fail to communicate, both within families and in political movements. Applying his skills as a veteran communicator through popular films and TV dramas, Garnett eschews any overt message, weaving this closely into the storyline.
Rejecting the easy option of caricaturing intense political engagement, Garnett treats commitment with an unwavering respect. Yet equally he insists on space for questioning and intimates the need for a left politics that can look outwards from more than one perspective.
The plot of Marine Ices skilfully twists and turns, making you want to read on. But the tension that animates the book is really the question of whether it is possible for political conviction and humane comprehension to ride in tandem. Garnett does not tell us his own view, but the urgency of his quest to combine the two is crucial to Havana’s enquiry into her heritage.