Review – Not Forgetting The Whale by John Ironmonger

By | January 30, 2015

When a young man washes up, naked, on the sands of St Piran in Cornwall, he is quickly rescued by the villagers. From the retired village doctor and the schoolteacher, to the beachcomber and the owner of the local bar, the priest’s wife and the romantic novelist, they take this lost soul into their midst. But what the villagers don’t know is that Joe Haak has fled the City of London fearing a worldwide collapse of civilisation, a collapse forecast by Cassie, a computer program he designed. 

But is the end of the world really nigh? Can Joe convince the village to seal itself off from the outside world?

And what of the whale that lurks in the bay?

Back in 2013 I discovered a book that left a profound impression on me, but that very few of my book-appreciating friends seemed to notice. That book was The Coincidence Authority – read my review here and you’ll see how much I loved it. So I was really quite excited when I saw that John Ironmonger had a new book on the way – Not Forgetting The Whale is published by Weidenfeld and Nicolson on 12th February in hardback and for kindle – and even more delighted when I managed to get my hands on a pre-release e-copy.

When you anticipate a new release so keenly, you sometimes prepare for disappointment – books sometimes have a tendency to frustrate, to let you down. But not this one – this is one of those rare books that I’ll be thrusting into the hands of friends and urging them to read it, it’s so thoroughly perfect.

Joe Haak washes up naked on the beach at St Piran in Cornwall, and is taken into the heart of the community of 397 people who live there: a fin whale seen in the bay is washed up shortly afterwards, and the village pulls together to return it to the sea. This is when we first start to meet the individuals who make up the community, and what wonderful individuals they are, all drawn in vivid detail. From the curmudgeonly retired doctor who provides Joe with a home, to the rigid vicar and his flighty wife, the nurse from Senegal with the beautiful singing voice, the perceptive primary school teacher, the beachcomber, the naturalist, the writer of romantic novels – they’re all drawn quite perfectly. 

Joe was formerly an analyst with an investment bank in the City where he designed a computer programme – Cassie – capable of predicting ailing stocks by analysing news sources and identifying links and impacts.  Details of his former life are told in flashbacks as he adapts to his very different life in St Piran, and are thoroughly fascinating. Joe fled when Cassie predicted a global catastrophe, and the village pulls together to survive the challenges that follow.

The story is thoroughly wonderful, the characterisation absolutely entrancing, and the themes around networks and communities and the unpredictability of human nature quite unforgettable. I guess you’d call it a post-apocalyptic novel, but overall I found it a fascinating exploration of how a very specific community of people react to a global event, and how people’s resilience and capacity for love will always surprise you. If you enjoy your books a little quirky, a little different from the norm – well, you’re going to love this one.

My thanks to netgalley and publishers W&N for my advance reading e-copy.

John Ironmonger was born and grew up in East Africa. He has a doctorate in zoology, and was once an expert on freshwater leeches. He is the author of The Good Zoo Guide, The Notable Brain of Maximilian Ponder, The Coincidence Authority and his latest, Not Forgetting The Whale. John was part of a world record team for speed reading Shakespeare, and once drove across the Sahara in a £100 banger. He lives in rural Shropshire with his wife, Sue, and has two grown-up children.