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It is the late 1850s and a tired woman holding a baby walks from Hull to one of the big houses in Anlaby, the home of the wealthy Rayners. She knocks at the door, and shoves the baby at young James Rayner. It is a Rayner child, the father was 'young Mr Rayner', and the mother is dead. Then she vanishes. The respectable shipping family of Hull are shattered. They all assume it is James's, not Gilbert's who is on the verge of an excellent marriage. No one wants to take responsibility for the baby and it is about to be put into a dreadful Dickensian type orphanage when Sammi, James's girl cousin, decides to take the baby back to her parents' home on the Holderness coast. This signals the beginning of a family furore. James is banished to London and disaster begins to beset the three branches of the Rayners, all descended from the couple in The Hungry Tide.

A huge, many-faceted story of the three related families and the triumphs and tragedies of their lives as the whaling industry of Hull begins to decline, and the farmlands and homes continue to slip into the sea.

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