The virgin and the whale by Carl Nixon – 2013

The Virgin & the WhaleI am a big Carl Nixon fan – and The Virgin & the Whale has strengthened this position. It is a story about stories – how we use them to cope with trauma; and stories within stories – overtly playing with storytelling, character, plot and ‘happy’ endings. The latter aspect of the novel annoyed some reviewers – saying it interfered with their enjoyment of ‘the story’ – which I think sort of missed the point. Elizabeth is a nurse living with her parents with her young son, waiting to hear news of her husband missing from the 1st World War. Paul Blackwell is a ‘first family’ citizen returned from the war with no memory prior to being hit by a fragment of bone in the trenches. Paul (or Lucky as he feels himself to be) confusedly lives with his wife – who he doesn’t remember – and who is desperate to have her husband back. Mrs Blackwell engages Elizabeth to care for her husband – and thereby hangs the tale. Elizabeth tell tales to help her son cope with the loss of his father, and her patient cope with the loss of his memory. There are aspects of the book reminiscent of Life if Pi – the book starting with a man who wants to retell a true story, a man ending up in a boat with a tiger – but that made the ‘human storytelling’ idea even more resonant for me. We tell stories to help us cope, our memory is patchy and often includes fictional elements, and some novels add to our perception of the world and its horrors and its beauty. The Virgin & the Whale is poignant and wise and I highly recommend it.

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