To Become A Whale – Book Review

“To Become A Whale” is the debut novel by Brisbane-based author, Ben Hobson.

This is the blurb from the publisher, Allen & Unwin:

To Become a Whale tells the story of 13-year-old Sam Keogh, whose mother has died. Sam has to learn how to live with his silent, hitherto absent father, who decides to make a man out of his son by taking him to work at Tangalooma, then the largest whaling station in the southern hemisphere. What follows is the devastatingly beautiful story of a gentle boy trying to make sense of the terrible reality of whaling and the cruelty and alienation of his new world, the world of men.

The novel is coming-of-age exploration of masculinity; one version of Australian masculinity that the reader is presented with. But no judgement is given. The reader determines how to understand the parameters and boundaries of 1960’s masculinity and how it measures up in the new millennium now almost two decades old.

Walt is a man respected on the flensing deck for his hard work, commitment, while his solitary nature isolates him from the company of other men. One of Walt’s crew, Phil, is a man who wants to play guitar but works the whaling station only as a job. He is another whose belief in the strictures of masculinity are limiting on the perception of himself.

The brokenness of Walt’s understanding and perception of his masculinity is as blatant as his mangled hand and framed by the nature of his work: deconstructing whale carcasses into constituent parts, unable to see the beauty of the whole through the nature of his work. Unable to understand and come to terms with the nature of his own grief. It’s this framework that he wants to impose upon his son.

Death is an ugly reality for young Sam: that of his mother, the work on the whaling station, his understanding of masculinity and his emotional self as the novel progresses. But through death comes rebirth. 

For me, the distance of the novel’s setting from current events is what allowed a range of questions to be asked about the role and nature of contemporary masculinity. It is a definition that is particularly complex yet rigidly defined in parts of Australian culture where normative masculine behaviours are exemplified through sport, violent behaviour, stoic emotional retardation. As a high school teacher, I could see this novel having a place with Year 9 and 10 boys.

The novel has drawn comparisons with Tim Winton and Favel Parrett, and those comparisons are warranted; there is not a wasted sentence. This is a nuanced novel. There is a beautiful sense of space for the reader to inhabit within the descriptive style. You feel the prose move with the tides and the heaving carcasses of the whales.

This is a remarkable debut novel and I thoroughly recommend it.

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