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Review by Kelly Jarvis: Whale Fall by Elizabeth O'Connor

Whale Fall is a stunning, debut novel that takes place on a fictional, remote island off the coast of Wales. Although it is 1938, the population on the island, which numbers only fifteen men, twenty women, and twelve children, is at least ten years behind the mainland in terms of fashion, politics, and ideologies. When a dead whale washes up on the shore, the islanders take it as a portend of doom, and following not far behind the whale is the entrance of two English ethnographers who seek to study the island’s culture, collecting its customs, tales, games, and geography for university study. A bright, eighteen-year-old island girl named Manod, who feels caught between the pressure to marry and leave the island and the need to stay on the island and care for her younger sister in the wake of their mother’s death, becomes enamored with the English researchers. They hire Manod to help them translate stories and communicate with the Welsh speaking islanders.

The story of Manod’s experience is punctuated with notes from the ethnographers and recreations of the tales they collect in their research. One tale features a woman with three daughters so beautiful the ocean sweeps them away in a jealous rage, returning them only as gulls flying in the wind. There are several variants of this tale, one which returns the daughters as whales, along with selkie stories and references to the Mari Lwyd. Although the novel celebrates folklore and those who are drawn toward it, Whale Fall also provides a poignant commentary on the exoticization of isolated communities and the impossibility of maintaining authenticity when studying other cultures through the lenses of our own. The researchers and the islanders exact irreversible changes upon each other that affect both Manod’s individual coming-of-age and the community’s sense of cultural identity.

At the background of Manod’s human narrative is the ever-present decay of the whale just off the coast of the island waters. The title of O’Connor’s novel forces readers to think of the researchers’ interest in the dwindling population on the island in relation to a natural “whale fall,” a term used to describe the slow plunging of a whale carcass to the bottom of the ocean. Although the death of a whale is a tragic loss, its decomposition supports various communities of marine life who scavenge on the flesh for months, and the researchers in the novel, who live on the stories of a disappearing culture, are presented as scavengers who take what is not theirs and use it for their own intellectual benefit. In direct contrast to the rotting whale is Manod’s younger sister, a wild child who speaks only in her native tongue and collects the bones of dead animals, storing them in jars until she finds the scraps she needs to recreate whole skeletons from the pieces. The tide-like push and pull between decomposition and reanimation, between the human world and the natural world, between the island and the mainland, between preserving stories and losing them, between death and life, pulses beneath the narrative of one girl at the crossroads of her obligations and her desires. Heartbreaking and harrowing, Whale Fall is a must read for fans of folklore and all those who enjoy contemplating our power and powerlessness as tellers of tales. I loved it!You can find it here.

Thank you to NetGalley for a free copy of the book in exchange for a fair review.

Kelly Jarvis works as the Assistant Editor for The Fairy Tale Magazine where she writes stories, poems, essays, book reviews, and interviews. Her poetry has also been featured or is forthcoming in Blue Heron Review, Mermaids Monthly, Eternal Haunted Summer, Forget Me Not Press, The Magic of Us, A Moon of One’s Own, Baseball Bard, and Corvid Queen. Her short fiction has appeared in The Chamber Magazine and the World Weaver Press Anthology Mothers of Enchantment: New Tales of Fairy Godmothers. You can connect with her on Facebook (Kelly Jarvis, Author) or Instagram (@kellyjarviswriter) or find her at




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