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Not Forgetting the Art of Storytelling

A Review of Not Forgetting the Whale by John Ironmonger

Some people will say that the recently dramatisation of Poldark has put Cornwall back on the map. I disagree. For me, it is John Ironmonger’s wonderful Not Forgetting The Whale. This may seem strange because the setting of the novel is an imagined place. Population 307, St Piran is so far removed from the City of London, it seems impossible to think that decisions being made on a trading floor in a tower of steel and glass might affect it. Google St Piran and you will find that he is the patron saint of Cornwall. St Piran’s Cross is the oldest recorded stone cross in Cornwall. You will find a St Piran’s Inn, but the village itself… Such is the skill of the author in drawing us into his world.

Joe Haak is a mathematician, a forecaster, a modern-day prophet, if you will. His job is to predict which shares are about to free fall, so that city traders can snap them up at the right moment and make a killing. And then, one fatal day, it seems that the maths is wrong.  When the bank makes a catastrophic loss, Joe is informed that he must take the rap. He escapes to a place so far from the beaten track that no one will be able to find him. In time, his arrival will become the stuff of local folklore; a stranger is washed up naked on the beach, on the same day that Kenny Kennet saw the whale. Joe is saved by the community – you might say that he returns from the dead – and they claim him as one of their own. But it turns out that Joe’s prediction was right. How he behaves in a time of what proves to be an international crisis depends entirely on a single promise made long ago.

From the opening pages, I knew that I was in safe hands, and the reason I knew this was because I could hear a narrator in my head reading to me. This is a gift that John Ironmonger shares with John Irving. Ironmonger depicts the peculiarities of small communities with great authenticity (think Whiskey Galore! and Local Hero). The scenes on the bank’s trading floors are in total contrast but are equally compelling. I particularly enjoyed Joe Haak’s relationship with the bank’s elderly partner/owner, Lew Kaufmann, who turns out to not to be part of the money-grabbing slick set, but something of a philosopher.

This is a gem of a novel: eccentric, quirky, thought-provoking and uplifting. Put it right at the very top of your reading list!

Earlier this year I had the great pleasure of interviewing John Ironmonger about his second novel, The Coincidence Authority. You can read it here.