A Small Island, a Big Mammal and One Girl’s Awakening

WHALE FALL, by Elizabeth O’Connor

Can a novel be both blunt and exquisite? I’m not sure I would have known how to imagine such a work before reading “Whale Fall,” Elizabeth O’Connor’s excellent debut. Brief but complete, the book is an example of precisely observed writing that makes a character’s specific existence glimmer with verisimilitude.

In the autumn of 1938, our narrator, Manod, is 18 and a lifelong inhabitant of an unnamed three-mile-square Welsh island, population 47, where people eke out a subsistence by fishing and farming. Manod lives with her father, a lobster fisherman, and her younger sister, Llinos, who, in one of the book’s many small mysteries, might have some kind of cognitive impairment or might just be eccentric. Inevitably, the island bleeds people to the mainland. Boys set off in hopes of factory jobs. Girls marry their way out. Both often find disappointment.

In this starkly limited place, women’s lives are further circumscribed. But Manod is bright and restless, resistant to the expectation that, having now finished school, she ought to accept a husband immediately. “I’d seen girls married at 16,” she says, “with children by 20, widowed by the sea by 25, worn out and lost.” That Manod’s own mother is dead is not confirmed until late in the novel, but the fact is not surprising as we are given glimpses throughout of an ominous depression: “At some point after Llinos was born, Mam got smaller, thinner … She stayed in bed most days, sleeping or lying with her eyes cold and open.” Manod isn’t sure what she wants for herself, but not that.

The first outside presence to disrupt life on the island is a baleen whale that washes up on the beach. No one quite knows what to make of the corpse, though the topsy-turviness of such a massive sea animal’s presence on land is unsettling. “A few older people said it was some kind of omen,” Manod says, “though could not agree on whether it was good or bad.” Children play around the body. As it begins to rot, people bring flowers and carve graffiti into its skin.

Not long after the whale’s arrival, human interlopers arrive in the form of Edward and Joan, English researchers making an ethnographic study of the island, who quickly hire Manod as an assistant and translator. Manod is enraptured by their alienness and by the possibilities they represent. She tells Joan that, before meeting her, she had not known women could attend university or choose not to marry. “I would love to study. Like you,” she says.

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