The first thing that attracted me to reading John Ironmonger’s new novel “Not Forgetting the Whale” was its beautiful cover. Of course, that’s a shallow way to choose your next read, but the cover illustration of sea water cascading over a whale with a town in the distance is very striking. The story begins mysteriously enough with the residents of St Piran, a fictional Cornish village, who collectively remember and celebrate an event that occurred fifty years ago. A naked man washed ashore in the harbour of their small seaside village and a whale appeared in the water. The facts of this incident have been stretched and tangled throughout the generations and with multiple retellings. What was once a historical incident has been transformed into a myth with a meaning far beyond itself. This occurrence marked a large shift that occurred in society which nearly brought it to a frightening end: “Sometimes life could do this. It could draw a line. Beyond the line, life would say, nothing will ever be the same. The sun will rise tomorrow but it will rise onto a different world.” Yet this village continued on and thrived in a new form. What follows is a highly unusual and thoughtful story about the events which led to this post-apocalyptic point.
Joe is a man on the run. Under duress, this handsome 30 year old fled his life in London where he worked in a prestigious investment bank as a computer programmer. Joe was an instrumental part of developing a program which could predict the rise and fall of the stock market with reasonable reliability. However, the company’s director has designs on this program doing much more. When things reach a crisis point Joe drives off into the countryside to randomly wind up in isolated St Piran. Only one main road leads in and out of this quaint village with a population of just over three hundred residents. The village is composed of a cast of characters with their own entertaining quirks and idiosyncrasies. Life has a very different rhythm here from the fast-paced trading floor that Joe is used to: “Time. That’s what he was noticing. Time was moving at a different rate here.” The inhabitants don’t have much interest in news of the outside world because global events have little effect upon them. Little ever changes. In fact it’s remarked of one resident that “Demelza Trevarrick had lived sufficient years in St Piran to understand that the tranquillity of the village was almost geological in its permanence.” It seems nothing can affect the way of life for this tranquil place – until a deadly flu reaches Britain.
Ironmonger’s primary preoccupation in this novel is with the political philosophy of Thomas Hobbes and his emphasis on self-interested cooperation. A crucial test for the resiliency of any government is at a point of crisis where self interest becomes the central motivating factor over any (social or legal) laws because people’s survival is suddenly at stake. The author’s story presents how events might play out and offers a surprising avenue through which individuals can weather through the challenges which threaten to tear a society down to basics. One resident observes “‘A village,’ Martha Fishburne would say, ‘is more’n a row of houses. It’s a whole network of connections.’” Whether they like it or not catastrophic affairs of The State (what Hobbes characterized metaphorically as a monster) come to their doorsteps in quite a literal way as a whale washes ashore and the essentials (food, electricity, oil) of everyday life are cut off from them after the outbreak of a deadly flu. The decision on how to move forward for this group of individuals will determine if they are able to progress as a collective or if their lives will be, as the philosopher famously surmised, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Caught in the middle of this is Joe whose actions inadvertently inspire the people as a guiding force. The ramifications of his experiences help steer his own personal direction in life, overcoming his estranged family’s tumultuous past and rediscovering what he values most.
I really enjoyed Ironmonger’s cleverly constructed story. He has a very different approach to the apocalypse tale from Emily St John Mandel’s “Station Eleven” which I also read recently. “Not Forgetting the Whale” is more concerned with the way macro systems of society feed down into the micro. Harnessing together some of the most pressing global concerns which make us fear for our collective future, the author proposes a realistic way in which civilization can become unhinged with the loss of only a single, but ultimately essential, part. Rather than focus on the panic and gore which normally attends apocalyptic stories, Ironmonger chooses instead to concentrate on deeper thoughts about how human nature factors in the correlation between individual motivations and social organization. It’s an engaging tale which poignantly develops its deeper meanings as it progresses while the history of both Joe and the village are slowly revealed. “Not Forgetting the Whale” creates an entire world which made me reflect upon my own.
Listen to the opening extract from the novel here: https://soundcloud.com/orionbooks/not-forgetting-the-whale-by-john-ironmonger-read-by-david-thorpe