Book Review – Not Forgetting The Whale by John Ironmonger


Not Forgetting The Whale

John Ironmonger

Rating: 4 1/2 Stars

‘When a young man washes up, naked, on the sands of St Piran in Cornwall, he is quickly rescued by the villagers. From the retired village doctor and the schoolteacher, to the beachcomber and the owner of the local bar, the priest’s wife and the romantic novelist, they take this lost soul into their midst. But what the villagers don’t know is that Joe Haak has fled the City of London fearing a worldwide collapse of civilisation, a collapse forecast by Cassie, a computer program he designed.

But is the end of the world really nigh? Can Joe convince the village to seal itself off from the outside world?

And what of the whale that lurks in the bay?

Intimate, funny and deeply moving, Not Forgetting the Whale is the story of a man on a journey to find a place he can call home…’

I spotted a copy of this in Preston’s Waterstones when I was doing the rounds to work out what to trawl the library catalogue for. The cover caught my eye (that cover art is absolutely beautiful),  the unusual title piqued my interest, I took a peek at the blurb and I was sold. I think we all see a lot of stuff that really makes you doubt what good – if any – humanity does. Publishing at the moment is of little help here, it seems to be full of dystopia and dark, psychological thrillers – they’re often very good novels, but they aren’t likely to make you feel good about the world.

This book does. It somehow manages to combine apocalyptic world-collapse with humour, heart and above all hope. Now that’s not easy, I take my hat off to your Mr Ironmonger.

I’m going to be pretty sketchy on the plot because – although it is by no means a page turner, more something to be savoured – I wouldn’t spoil it for the world. When I say that this is not a grim novel that’s not to say it’s all singing, dancing and delusional about the joys of humanity. It’s perfectly aware of our short-comings, of the wrong we did to bring ourselves to this situation, but it looks beyond that into what binds us together and what we – as a species – have to give.

A highlight for me is the wonderful fable-like quality of the narration. Time moves fluidly throughout this novel, speeding up and then stretching out like waves running up and down a beach. We slip in and out of events in real time and those remembered by the collective consciousness of the villagers. It’s a story with many voices, almost choral in places, but I was never confused by the large cast. Whilst there is a cast list available at the back of the book, I didn’t need to look at it once and only read it out of curiosity at the end. Everyone was very distinct in a strangely fairytale-esque way.

The only issue I have with this book – that knocks it down from a 5 star to a 4 1/2 – is the Joe/Penny element. It dies away, thankfully, and it’s far from the focus. But in a book with so many wonderful women with real depth and character, Penny felt like too much of a placeholder. I wanted a bit more of her motivations, to be a bit more inside her head.

The ending was wonderful and will live with me for a long time. I loved it and I’ve already got his previous two books from the library. I also gave in and nabbed my own copy of ‘Whale’ from Waterstones last Monday. It’s not a book I want to re-read straight away, I want to let the questions it raised in me sink in, but it’s definitely one that I will be happy to return to again and again.


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