The Waves Burn Bright is a portrait of the aftermath of the 1988 Piper Alpha disaster as experienced by one family, the Frasers. Carrie Fraser is 16 when the fire occurs. Her father, Marcus, is one of the survivors but a geologist, not a crew member, who is only visiting the platform for a few days when it is stricken. Her parents’ marriage was already in trouble and her father’s inability to process the trauma causes her mother to walk out.
Carrie, a studious teenager with ambitions to study away from Aberdeen, becomes the chief carer to her erratic, alcoholic dad. The narrative moves back and forth in time over a period of 25 years, and also crisscrosses the globe from Japan, to New Zealand, Hawaii and back to Aberdeen.
The characters are well drawn and believable; the tortured survivor, blotting out memories with the bottle; the child damaged as much by the implosion of her parents’ marriage as the disaster; and the guilt-ridden mother who has positioned herself outside the close unit of father and daughter but who still wants to revel in Carrie’s achievements.
The night of the disaster is sensitively and evocatively handled: some men on the platform follow safety drills to doomed muster stations, while others jump to their deaths in the face of the intense heat.
Carrie as a 16-year-old undergoes the agony of waiting with the other relatives at the hospital in Aberdeen.
But the story reaches far beyond Piper Alpha. With both father and daughter pursuing careers as geologists – him as an oil and gas specialist, her as a volcanologist – it becomes a story of what happens when the metaphorical rock you have built your life on becomes liquid.
Digging through a hard exterior to explore the layers beneath can be a dangerous and explosive exercise, whether that’s the earth’s crust or a human’s weaker shell.
In this novel both are explored in equally compelling ways.