'Whale Fall' by Elizabeth O'Connor: Book Review: NPR

Cover of Walvisval

Elizabeth O'Connor's sparse and bracing debut novel Whale trap begins with an isolated Welsh island in an abyss. It is September 1938 and the community's fishermen encounter the Royal Navy at sea.

When a whale washes ashore, the minister, who widely shares developments from outdated newspapers, suggests that undersea radar could explain its fate. To the elderly, the beached whale seems like an omen, although they are not sure whether this is a good or bad omen. Regardless, “it felt like something was circling us, waiting to land against the shore,” O'Connor writes.

We gain access to this remote, superstitious world through Manod Llan, Whale trap's sharp-eyed 18-year-old narrator. Her family is one of twelve remaining on the small fictional island, where livelihoods revolve around the churning sea; men like Manod's father, a lobsterman, do the fishing, and women prepare the catch on land. Every year some men are lost at sea, and some young people move to the mainland for the promise of a better life.

Manod dreams of such a life. She recently completed her studies at the island's one-room schoolhouse, where she learned English by reading the Bible and distinguished herself as exceptionally bright. But in her culture, as her mother often complained before her death, “There is no other job for a woman to get than a woman.” Manod's life is further defined: now that her mother is gone, she has to raise her 12-year-old sister Llinos and maintain her father's house. Images from magazines left in the chapel fill her daydreams about the kind of life she could lead on the mainland.

When the whales become stranded, Manod's options seem to expand. Soon, a pair of 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, reinvigorating her through language and fueling her desire to live a more worldly life. But she struggles with being an object of their anthropological gaze, with their romantic misrepresentation of her culture, and with what it would mean to leave the island – and Llinos – behind. By bringing us to this world through the eyes of Manod, Whale trap offers a stark reckoning with what it means to be seen from the outside, both as a person and as a people, and an extraordinary, poignant portrait of a young woman torn between individual desire and communal 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 coast of the Llŷn Peninsula in Wales, where in the long run the population in 2019 was only 11. As she told Publishers weeklyshe was also inspired by her 'family connection with people who live with the sea and the coast', particularly by grandparents who grew up in coastal enclaves in Ireland and Wales and moved to English cities during the Second World War.

From this solid foundation, O'Connor constructs her setting with precise, atmospheric details that capture a world that is slowly being eroded. Moisture seeps into everything, from the moss-covered chapel to a novel whose pages are “formed in waves.” The sea is close enough 'that at high tide it can spray the house with water and eat away the paint.' Month after month, the whale's body decays on the beach. It enters the women's dreams, where it appears next to “a woman coming out of the water”; it animates the children's play as they place flowers around his body and make pictures of them.

Joan and Edward find the customs and myths of the islanders charming, and during their months-long stay they make phonograph recordings of songs about shipwrecks and stories about the sea that jealously steals daughters and brings them back like whales, which Manod translates and O'Connor alternates in between. between short, impressionistic chapters. Despite their best efforts to document it accurately, the ethnographers' assumptions about the island and its people cloud their depictions 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 Joan's dream “of a place untouched by cities, where the people were like wild flowers” – a gross simplification of the harsh way of life there.

Through Manod's relationship with Joan, O'Connor struggles with the dark side of idealizing isolation. Manod initially looks up to Joan because of her university education and beautiful clothes – she represents the kind of female role model that Manod lost when her mother died. She attracts Joan's attention and strives to represent herself and the island in the best possible light, lying that she is “named after a species of coastal herb” and making up inaccurate scenes for Joan's photographs. But gradually 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 examining the looming threats of World War II through the personal, O'Connor crystallizes the stakes for the island and avoids what could otherwise be a labored repetition of history.

Ultimately, Manod is drawn between her feelings of being seen by Edward and Joan and completely misunderstood by them, between her desire to leave the island and her obligations to protect her family, her community and her culture from exploitation and even extinction . . It all makes for a haunting and lucid exploration of the moments that lead to enormous changes.

Kristen Martin is working on a book about American orphanhood for Bold Type Books. Her writing has also appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The Believer, The Baffler, and elsewhere. She tweets @quisent.

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