CALL ME BATHSHEBA.
It is not my name, but the name I use for this story. A name, I hoped, that would be free of prophecy, free of the burden of a future placed upon it, free of any destiny that would tear it from my hands and destroy worlds.
You think I overstate. You are wrong.
Oh my goodness, this novella was extraordinary!
How did I not notice when it was released? I mean, I love Patrick Ness – The Chaos Walking Trilogy was magnificent, A Monster Calls was exceptional and pretty much my most recommended book ever! – and I adore Moby-Dick. I know that Moby-Dick is a bit of a marmite novel and people either love or hate it but I love it! Epic and mythic and haunting full of characters that are Shakespearean and vivid, poetic and lyrical and visceral.
So, when I heard that Ness had taken Moby-Dick and re-imagined it from the whales’ point of view – in fact inverted the narrative in the same way that the novella’s title inverts our perspective which is deeply unsettling – I was expecting something fantastic. And it did not fail to deliver!
Opening with that echo of the famous first line of Moby-Dick, Bathsheba is telling her tale as a cautionary warning, a plea, a prophecy. A cautionary tale which, for all the fantastical elements, sounds terribly relevant to and important for the world we are living in.
And what a tale – and what a world – it is! Whales who build ships around themselves from wood salvaged from human ships, who wield their own harpoons. Whales with a gift for prophecy. Whales with a religious terror of the man Toby Wick, mythical whale killer, who left a harpoon embedded in the forehead of Captain Alexandra, robbing her of her echolocation. Whales organised into ships and apprentices, hunting the seas for humans. It is a deeply unsettling inversion of our perspective, as the whales experience when they breach onto the surface of the Abyss
Ah, the Abyss. The dizzying moment when your weight shifts, and the world tilts, up becoming down, the world pulling at your stomach like a gyroscope, and suddenly, there is air to breathe.
The story itself is remarkably rich for being so short: in summary, Captain Alexandra and her three apprentices including Bathsheba discover a human shipwreck and a nearly dead man, Demetrius, whose hand is plunged into the ocean bearing a coin with the initials TW for Toby Wick. He is taken by the whales and interrogated and put into the care of Bathsheba, leading them towards the inevitable confrontation between Wick and whale.
And the relationship between Third Apprentice Bathsheba and her captive Demetrius (kept alive through a breather bubble is wonderful and touching: two alien species, two cultures in conflict learning to understand and respect one another.
This depth is in part the result of the stunning illustrations – and we all know from A Monster Calls that Patrick Ness understands how illustration can develop a story – by Rovina Cai
Oh the power of those streaks of red, too!
There are revelations that occur as the novella reaches it’s climax and the nature of Toby Wick is revealed in a monstrously intelligent and thoughtful way… and was I the only person who imagined him with Trump’s face? But I shall leave the final words here to Bathsheba because they chime so powerfully with the world we live in full of populism and rants and suspicion and fear – fear of other religions, other races, otherness in general
And so now I tell you my story. Now is the time. For rumors swirl and oceans stir and in that maelstrom, I fear, devils will rise. Are rising. Have risen. The great trick of the devil is to make you want to see him. But it is only when you see him that you fear him. And by then, it is too late.
As, I fear, I might be. We are too eager to build devils. Is it only a matter of time before we are at war again?
So I beg of you. Take the name Bathsheba. Take it and place on it the prophecy of not going down this road. Take my name as the warning of where our fears will lead us, where the devils we make will destroy us all. Or take it as what might happen if a whale can learn the name of a man, and he can learn hers. And she can mourn at his passing. If this is possible, what else might be?
A beautiful plea for tolerance, for respect, for listening to each other.
Now, can someone please get Ness and China Miéville into a room together because I adored both this and Railsea, both of which are Young Adult reworkings of Moby-Dick! And why has this not appeared on any book prize lists? At least none that I have spotted!
Consider reading this if you enjoyed
- Moby-Dick, Herman Melville
- Railsea, China Miéville
- Coraline, Neil Gaiman
Plot / Pace:
Publisher: Walker Books
Date: 6th September 2018