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In 'Sea State,' life gets rocky when a journalist gets involved with her subject

Tabitha Lasley's memoir Sea State is a peculiar and entrancing blend of memoir and reportage.

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Other segments from the episode on December 20, 2021

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, December 20, 2021: Interview with Alan Cumming; Review of the memoir Sea State.

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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Former journalist Tabitha Lasley spent six months in Aberdeen, Scotland, interviewing the men who work for weeks at a time on offshore oil rigs. Along the way, Lasley found herself losing her own footing on solid ground. Her memoir is called "Sea State." And our book critic, Maureen Corrigan, has a review.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: I just learned a useful new term, sea state. It describes the condition of the water's surface like, say, an ocean that might be dead calm or roiling with waves. In Tabitha Lasley's memoir called "Sea State," which was published earlier this year in the U.K., the term takes on emotional connotations. Midway through her story, Lasley is floundering in a sea of troubles. She's in love with a slippery, married man, and she's living on her fast-evaporating savings while working on a book idea whose subject she can't quite get a hold of - little wonder. The book she does finally produce, "Sea State," turns out to be a peculiar and entrancing blend of memoir and reportage. In it, Lasley chronicles her own breakdown and the breakdown of a way of life for the men who work on oil rigs in the North Sea.

Lasley introduces herself at the opening of this book as a woman who's in her mid-30s and living a wintry half-life with a boyfriend who holds her in contempt. She's working as a reporter for a London magazine, but her parents' backgrounds - lower middle class from Liverpool - set her apart from her colleagues. Taking a leap into the unknown, Lasley breaks up with her mean boyfriend and leaves her job to move to Aberdeen, Scotland, the oil capital of Britain. There, she wants to research a book about the masculine working-class culture of oil riggers whose livelihood is threatened by, among other things, the influx of lower wage workers from other parts of the world.

These guys live double lives - three weeks offshore on giant rigs in the North Sea, three weeks on shore, drinking hard and reacclimating maybe to their families. Lasley rents a charmless apartment in Aberdeen, which she likens to a Gulf state, a desert caliphate. Women were rarely seen alone after dark. It was full of itinerant workers, miles from home and lonely. For six months, she meets interview subjects by trolling Tinder and hitting bars. Here's how she describes that research experience.

(Reading) It was half past one on a Tuesday afternoon, and I was already on my way to being drunk. I'd been circulating around this bar room for a few hours now, buying drinks, inviting confidences like the tipsy hostess of a dour, exclusively male cocktail party. The nature of this work was making me see what it must be like for them. Girls are taught to respond to the subtlest social cues, to beat a retreat at the first hint of furrowed brow or crossed arms; boys to develop a benign tone deafness for the very same signals. To latch on to strangers and coax conversation from them, I had to become a hybrid of sorts - the unthreatening looks of a woman, the impervious core of a man.

Lasley fends off a lot of propositions and hears a lot of vivid stories, many of them about accidents and the lax safety protection for workers off shore. Not only is the oil rig itself a pressure cooker, one worker tells Lasley, but the human element felt explosive - 100 men of varying temperaments trapped together in a steel box miles from land. Lasley's own isolated situation feels similar to being marooned on one of those rigs. She's cut off from her London life and having an all-consuming affair with one of the very first guys she interviews. Ironically, in acting on her ambition to delve deep into the masculine culture of the oil rig workers, Lasley herself winds up for a time living the traditional suspended life of a mistress.

Smart about sexual desire and the ease of analyzing - but the difficulty of escaping - familiar gender roles, "Sea State" offers a close-up view of the white working-class resentments that helped fuel both Brexit and the Trump presidency. As a journalist, Lasley commits the cardinal sin of getting involved with one of her subjects. But as a memoirist, her transgression save "Sea State" from the tone of faintly anthropological distance that books about the working class often have. As it turns out, "Sea State" has more than enough calming introspection and roiling antagonisms to make it well worth the ride.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan is a professor of literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed the memoir "Sea State" by Tabitha Lasley. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be Faith Jones. Her grandfather founded the cult group Children of God, which changed its name to The Family. He told his thousands of followers around the world that sex is godly and therefore men could practice polygamy and a woman should share her body with any man in the group who desired her. Jones' new memoir is called "Sex Cult Nun." I hope you'll join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Therese Madden directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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