Sunday, June 30, 2024

BOOK REVIEW: Whale Fall by Elizabeth O’Connor

I received this book for free from Netgalley. That did not influence this review.

Whale Fall by Elizabeth O’Connor is a heartbreaking literary historical novel. Set in 1938, on a fictional island off the coast of Wales, the story is narrated by an 18-year-old island woman named Manod.

Manod is intelligent and caring. She’s attuned to the rhythms of island life, but yearns to expand her horizons. Many of the younger islanders have already moved to the mainland in search of better opportunities, and Manod hopes to do so also, but it’s unclear whether their lives improve or if what they sacrifice in leaving is too great a price to pay.

The story begins with two arrivals. The first is a dead whale that washes ashore. As it slowly decomposes, it becomes part of the island, incorporated into children’s games and adult rituals. The second is an invasion by two English ethnographers, who are eager to record the culture of the islanders before it disappears. They enlist Manod’s help as an interpreter/transcriber. She begins to see them as the means for her escape. Yet her admiration for them slides into disillusionment as she discovers how they manipulate their observations to tell the story they want to tell.

As expected, the ethnographers are more interested in creating a compelling story for the book they are writing than in presenting a realistic picture of the people and their customs. In the act of “preserving” the culture, they are instrumental in distorting it.

The language is spare. The pace of the novel is slow, but there is a tension in it that held my interest – a sense of impending doom. The whale is potentially an evil omen. The ethnographers are unprincipled. The culture is slowly dying. And WWII is approaching. This is not exactly an enjoyable novel, but it will make you think.

1 comment:

  1. This sounds really good!!

    Thanks for sharing this review with the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.