REVIEWED BY TRICIA GILBEY
Kate Sawyer (Coronet: 2021)
When we think of whales, we often talk of saving them. It’s not often we consider that perhaps one day a whale might save us.
Although it defies genre, The Stranding lets us know we are in the realm of the speculative with the opening words, ‘Tell me something you miss from Before’. Kate Sawyer follows this with such a strong central image it puts the reader right alongside the main character. Ruth is desperately trying to save a whale stranded on a New Zealand beach, when instead, the whale saves her and Nik, a local man, from annihilation by an unexplained but human-induced catastrophe. They are protected because they shelter inside the whale’s huge mouth.
Ruth has not paid attention to what was going on in the news, preferring to focus on her personal life. That feels like something many are doing now, with today’s 24-hour doom laden news cycle. Ruth’s memories about her life back in the UK play out in a dual narrative, which is both involving and poignant. I wanted to find out what had brought Ruth here, who she was before, and to see whether, now that she has the challenge of trying to survive, she will manage to cope, or possibly even thrive in such a future.
The chapters where Ruth is remembering the Before gave me a new perspective on our own world. The small details of everyday life seem more precious for knowing Ruth’s fate. We witness her messy relationships; the complications of daily life; her longing and planning for the future. We gradually understand how she came to be the person we get to know in the After and it makes those chapters easy to relate to as we ask, what would we do in such extreme circumstances? Kate Sawyer resists the opportunity to paint on a large canvas here—she wisely sticks to the detail of domestic life around the hut made of whale bones, which draws us in further, and illuminates Ruth’s previous relationships as well as her present ones. All details are brilliantly and beautifully observed.
‘In the Before’ we see Ruth in the Natural History Museum, looking up at the whale which has been named Hope, accompanied by a curious, questioning child. And that’s what this book left me with. Questions, and hope for humanity’s and nature’s resilience in a very imperfect world.