May 2024

Whale Fall

By Elizabeth O’Connor
Review by
Whale Fall is a rich and quietly compelling novel that vividly captures the transformation of an isolated community in the British Isles.
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A dead whale is a harbinger of transformation in this mesmerizing coming-of-age story.

It’s 1938. Eighteen-year-old Manod lives on a remote island in the British Isles that is situated five to 10 hours from the mainland by boat, depending on the weather. Here, nature dictates how bountiful or brutal life will be for the isolated island community that lives off the land and sea. Men’s desirability is based on their ability to forage seaweed and the value of their livestock, while girls are married by 16 and often left widows by 25, because the sea is dangerous and none of the fishermen can swim.

The dead whale’s appearance is followed, about a month later, by an English couple, Joan and Edward, ethnographers from the mainland who are keen to gather content for a book about the island. Manod, literate in English and Welsh, and hopeful for an escape from social expectations, becomes their eager assistant. But her interactions with the idealistic Joan and the handsome Edward make her reexamine her dreams and her understanding of island life.

Whale Fall is a rich and quietly compelling novel that vividly captures the community’s transformation. Entrancing descriptions illuminate the raw beauty of the island through seasonal changes. Manod is a memorable protagonist; her ability to live this challenging life while entertaining aspirations for herself and her sister beyond getting married and staying on the island shows great complexity and strength. Manod’s interactions with Joan and Edward are profound in their subtlety, demonstrating the cultural divides possible within the Commonwealth. Debut author Elizabeth O’Connor’s metaphoric use of the decaying whale masterfully depicts the gradual erosion of the island way of life, picked apart by scavengers.

Poignant and poetic, Whale Fall is a compelling read for fans of M.L. Stedman’s The Light Between Oceans, Tove Janssen’s The Summer Book and Claire Keegan’s Foster.

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Whale Fall

Whale Fall

By Elizabeth O’Connor
ISBN 9780593700914

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