To Become a Whale
Australian coastal Gothic coming-of-age novels are perennially popular with readers and they come with a number of conventions. Ben Hobson’s debut, To Become a Whale, taps all of them neatly. It’s set in 1961, in coastal Queensland. Our sensitive, gentle, vulnerable protagonist is 13-year-old Sam Keogh, who’s too anxious to play football but good at school. At the beginning of the novel, Sam’s loving mother dies of an illness, leaving him reeling. He’s left in the care of his father, the man in turmoil. Walter is a cold, disagreeable and frequently cruel short man with missing fingers who was rarely home during Sam’s childhood because he works at the Moreton Island whaling station as a flenser for months on end, during the season. When his wife dies, Walter takes Sam away from everything he knows – their house, his grandparents and school – initially to a piece of vacant land closer to the water, where Walter plans to build and start again.
Sam’s only comfort during this time of grieving and dislocation is his puppy, Albert. Later, Walter lies about Sam’s age and takes him along to the whaling station so he can begin his whaling career. There he meets Walter’s colleagues and enters into the brutal world of men. Will Sam symbolically turn into a copy of his father? By the end, he’s learnt valuable lessons about anger and forgiveness.
Hobson has chosen an unusual voice to tell his story. Sam is “the boy”, Walter is “his father”, all the way through. Sam is also unusually self-aware about some things: he can compare the bodies of the whales with his mother’s body and note that “Perhaps no dignity was possible in death”. And there’s a lot of death here. The point of reading fiction, to paraphrase Hanya Yanagihara, is to be upset, and Hobson’s descriptions of the whaling portray in graphic, lengthy and frequent detail the horrific nature of the butchery of the animals. The life of the whalers, their habits, routines and work are all fascinating, however, and speak of immaculate research or experience. It takes 150 pages, however, to get to Moreton Island.
Through this grim book, Hobson stays true to the important parts of the genre: the counterintuitive clash between our usual perception of the sunny Australian beach and its friendly, laidback people, and an overarching mood of dark foreboding and troubled masculinity, and the constant presence of death. LS
Allen & Unwin, 404pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 27, 2017 as "Ben Hobson, To Become a Whale ". Subscribe here.