Book Review: Whale Fall by Elizabeth O'Connor

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

Set on a fictional Welsh island in 1938, Whale Fall by Elizabeth O'Connor revolves around eighteen-year-old Manod Llan, a lifelong islander, who dreams of a life different from the one expected of girls her age in her community. She yearns for a future that would take her away from the island yet feels a deep attachment to the small community (fifteen men, twenty women, and twelve children), her father and younger sister Llinos whom she has taken care of ever since her mother passed on. When a beached whale washes ashore, their isolated island catches the attention of outsiders among whom are two ethnographers who visit the island to study the way of life of the islanders. Manod is a bright girl, well versed in both Welsh and English and the natural choice for a translator who could assist Joan and Edward in communicating with the islanders and transcribing their notes. Joan’s friendship and worldliness inspire Manod and Edward’s promises give her hope. But as she follows their research, she is disillusioned by their inauthentic representation of the people she holds dear and is compelled to doubt their motives.

With its exquisite writing, vivid imagery and immersive setting, Whale Fall by Elizabeth O'Connor is a compelling read that I found hard to put down. Manod is an endearing protagonist and I was invested in her story from the very first page. This is a quiet novel, the kind that won’t surprise you because most of us know that people can be exploitative, opportunistic and self-serving, but unfortunately, young girls like Manod who have led a sheltered existence in a close-knit community are not well versed in the ways of the world. We can see what lies ahead for Manod but are unable to look away. The author does not let you. She keeps you engrossed in stories of the islanders, the songs they sing, their traditions and their folklore, not to say their fascination with the beached whale. Manod’s pain, longing and internal conflict are palpable and her love for her sister and community will strike a chord in your heart. Needless to say, this is an emotionally impactful read and you'll need to go in knowing that it will be difficult to remain unaffected. However, despite the bleakness, the author does end this story on a hopeful note for which I am grateful.

Overall, I found this to be an evocative novel - a memorable read that will stay with you long after you have turned the last page. I simply could not believe that this was the author’s debut novel and I look forward to reading more from this talented new author in the future.

Many thanks to Knopf, Pantheon, Vintage, and Anchor for the digital review copy via NetGalley. All opinions expressed in this review are my own.