Monday, May 13, 2024

Review: Whale Fall by Elizabeth O'Connor

Whale Fall by Elizabeth O'Connor
Publication Date: May 7th, 2024
Hardcover. 224 pages.

About Whale Fall:

"A stunning debut from an award-winning writer, about loss, isolation, folklore, and the joy and dissonance of finding oneself by exploring life outside one’s community

In 1938, a dead whale washes up on the shores of remote Welsh island. For Manod, who has spent her whole life on the island, it feels like both a portent of doom and a symbol of what may lie beyond the island's shores. A young woman living with her father and her sister (to whom she has reluctantly but devotedly become a mother following the death of their own mother years prior), Manod can't shake her welling desire to explore life beyond the beautiful yet blisteringly harsh islands that her hardscrabble family has called home for generations.

The arrival of two English ethnographers who hope to study the island culture, then, feels like a boon to her—both a glimpse of life outside her community and a means of escape. The longer the ethnographers stay, the more she feels herself pulled towards them, reckoning with a sensual awakening inside herself, despite her misgivings that her community is being misconstrued and exoticized.

With shimmering prose tempered by sharp wit, Whale Fall tells the story of what happens when one person's ambitions threaten the fabric of a community, and what can happen when they are realized. O'Connor paints a portrait of a community and a woman on the precipice, forced to confront an outside world that seems to be closing in on them."

Whale Fall takes places on a small island off the coast of Wales in 1938. We follow Manod, a young woman who has a strong sense of loyalty to her island, but who also imagines what it might be like to leave the island and begin a life elsewhere. This idea becomes much more prominent when two ethnographers from Oxford arrive on the island for research after a beached whale on the island draws attention from the outside world.

What I liked: 
Elizabeth O'Connor has excelled in the art of crafting a quiet, thoughtful story that is largely character-centric and deftly captures the lives of this extremely small community's survival. I was surprised and impressed that this is a debut novel, as her writing is truly lovely, full of extremely vivid imagery and and a heartfelt sense of longing and appreciation for this way of life. I enjoyed getting to know the different members of this community and seeing how their unique personalities have all been crafted in different ways by their upbringing on the island, and found it particularly interesting to see how some yearned to move on from the island, while others, such as Manod's sister, had no desire to ever leave. There is a melancholic air to the story that I think showcases how bleak life on this island can be, but there is always something more to the story that is conveyed well.

What I didn't like: It's hard to put my finger on what exactly didn't work for me here, but I found myself struggling to get through, despite O'Connor beautiful and thoughtful writing. I'm torn between appreciating that there was nothing major that really "happens" in this story, and also having a leftover feeling after finishing that something was missing, even if just something small. I appreciate a quiet story where "nothing happens," but I think I was always expecting just a little bit more. I also knew the story wouldn't actually be solely about the beached whale, but I'll admit I did expect the whale to be slightly more central.

Overall, What Fall is a gorgeous work of literature about a community that is slowly dying out, and Elizabeth O'Connor captures everything about that perfectly. I've given Whale Fall four stars. 

Buy the book: Amazon |

1 comment:

  1. I was curious about this, and I'm glad you enjoyed it. Although I might feel the same way about "nothing happening."