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‘Whale Fall’ by Elizabeth O’Connor: Book Review: NPR

Cover of Whale Falls
Cover of Whale Falls

Elizabeth O’Connor’s sober and invigorating first novel Fall of the whales opens on a remote Welsh island on a precipice. It is September 1938 and the community’s fishermen begin to confront the Royal Navy at sea.

When a whale washes ashore, the minister, who shares developments from outdated newspapers en masse, suggests that underwater radar could explain its fate. To the elders, the beached whale seems to be an omen, although they are unsure whether it portends good or evil. Regardless, “it felt like something was circling us, waiting to land against the shore,” O’Connor writes.

We access this distant and superstitious world thanks to Manod Llan, Fall of the whalesThe 18-year-old narrator with gimlet eyes. His family is one of 12 remaining on the small, fictional island, where livelihoods revolve around the rough seas: men like Manod’s father, a lobster fisherman, take care of the fishing and the women prepare the catches to sell on the continent. Every year, men are lost at sea and young people leave for the continent with the promise of a better life.

Manod dreams of such a life. She has just graduated from a one-room schoolhouse on the island, where she learned English by reading the Bible and distinguished herself as particularly bright. But in her culture, as her mother often lamented before her death, “there is no employment for a woman except as a wife.” Manod’s life is even more limited: with her mother gone, she must raise her 12-year-old sister Llinos and take care of her father’s house. Pictures from magazines left in the chapel fill her with daydreams about the kind of life she could lead on the continent.

When the whales beach themselves, Manod’s options seem to expand. Soon, two English ethnographers from Oxford University arrive, eager to see the whale and document the island’s customs. Edward and Joan barely speak Welsh, so they employ Manod as a translator, giving her new power through language and stoking her desire for a more worldly life. But she struggles to become the object of their anthropological gaze, to confront their romantic misrepresentations of her culture, and to understand what it would mean to leave the island – and Llinos – behind. Taking us into this world through Manod’s eyes, Fall of the whales offers a brutal assessment of what it means to be seen from the outside, both as a person and as a people, and a singular and penetrating portrait of a young woman torn between her individual aspirations and her community responsibilities.

In a note to the text, O’Connor writes that she based her fictional island on her research into “an amalgamation of islands around the British Isles”, including Bardsey Island off the Llŷn peninsula in the country. of Wales, where the long-term population in 2019 was just 11. As she said Publishers Weeklyshe was also inspired by her “family connections to people who live with the sea and the shore”, particularly her grandparents who grew up in the coastal enclaves of Ireland and Wales and moved to the cities English during the Second World War.

From this solid foundation, O’Connor builds his setting with precise atmospheric detail that captures a world that is slowly eroding. Humidity pervades everything from a moss-covered chapel to a romance novel whose pages are “shaped into waves.” The sea is close enough “to water the house at high tide and eat away the paint.” Month after month, the whale’s body decomposes on the beach. He invades women’s dreams, where he appears alongside “a woman coming out of the water”; he animates the play of the children, who place flowers around his body and paint pictures of it.

Joan and Edward find the customs and myths of the islanders charming, and during their months-long stay they record on phonograph songs about shipwrecks and tales of the sea jealously stealing their daughters and returning them as whales, which Manod translates and which O’Connor inserts. between short and impressionistic chapters. Despite their best efforts to document meticulously, the ethnographers’ assumptions about the island and its inhabitants blur their representations from the start. In her first conversation with Manod, Joan compares the island to Treasure Island, which she assumes Manod has never heard of (Manod has read it). The island fulfills Jeanne’s dream of “a place untouched by cities, where people were like wild flowers” – a gross simplification of the harsh lifestyle there.

Through Manod’s relationship with Joan, O’Connor grapples with the dark side of the idealization of isolation. Manod initially admires Joan for her academic education and fine clothing – she represents the kind of female role model Manod lost when his mother died. She attracts Joan’s attention and strives to represent herself and the island in the best possible light, lying that it is “named after a kind of coastal grass” and concocting paintings inaccurate for Joan’s photographs. Gradually, however, Manod becomes aware that Joan’s pride in Britain and its islands – and her conscious refusal to see the island as it really is – is rooted in fascism. By exploring the looming threats of World War II through a personal approach, O’Connor fleshes out the issues for the island, avoiding what might otherwise be a laborious rehash of history.

Ultimately, Manod is torn between her feelings of being seen by Edward and Joan and being completely misunderstood by them, between her burning desire to leave the island and her obligations to protect her family, her community, and her culture. exploitation and even extinction. . It all adds up to a haunting and lucid exploration of the moments leading to immense change.

Kristen Martin is working on a book about the American orphanage for Bold Type Books. His writings also appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The Believer, The Baffler, and elsewhere. She tweets at @kwistent.

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