DEATH OF A WHALER by Nerida Newton
Allen & Unwin, $22.95 pb, 305 pp, 9781741147919
In my final year at university, overwhelmed by a gargantuan backlog of reading, I opted for a course with only one book on the required reading list. It was called ‘Literature and the Sea’ and the novel was Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. Surfeit to say, it was no easy option. Immense in both size and scope, the American classic is awash with biblical references and allegory. Given its synonymy with the mythical leviathans of the deep, it is unsurprising that Moby Dick haunts Nerida Newton’s second novel, Death of a Whaler. The anti-hero protagonist, Flinch, periodically dips into his well-thumbed copy in the hope that it will provide him with answers. Instead, it leaves him frustrated, his bewilderment merely exacerbated.
Set in Byron Bay, the death in the title occurs in 1962, but the majority of the novel takes place in 1975, against a backdrop of social change. Already an outsider due to his physical disability and alcoholic mother, Flinch is involved in the accidental killing of his friend and fellow whaler, Nate. The guilt surrounding the incident turns him into a recluse, fracturing his life in two: “Man. Before. Murderer. After”. Unable to escape the notion that his fate is set, Flinch is certain that the sea “is the element of his destiny”. As an unhappy child, the ocean offered him an escape from his miserable existence on land. The hours spent watching the whales from the cliffs led to his job as a whale-spotter: his fascination bringing about their destruction and, indirectly, the death of his first real friend. Ahab’s relentless hunt for Moby Dick is often interpreted as an analogy for man’s struggle against fate, and Flinch also consider the whales to be “a signal for something bigger than himself”. Believing he is doomed, he refuses to return to the sea.
Flinch’s journey of self-forgiveness runs in parallel to the altering fortunes of “a town coloured with memories”. Punished for its crimes against nature, Byron Bay is “all empty streets, the silence that has descended on the town and the odd old bastard crying quietly into his beer”. Infused with a sense of distaste about their whaling history, the residents are as uncomfortable with their complicity in the slaughter as Flinch.
The process of healing is set in motion by his burgeoning friendship with Karma and subsequent encounters with the hippie commune where she resides. With her fragile façade of carefree happiness, Karma senses in Flinch another damaged soul, and draws him into the world of “The Aquarians. The Alternatives.” Amongst this odd assortment of waifs and strays, Flinch feels he has “stumbled on some kind of oasis […] an explorer wandered out of the desert and into a culture he is immediately drawn to but can’t understand.” On the outskirts of society, within this eccentric communal world of cleansing and healing ceremonies, he “feels forcibly immersed as if his head had been pushed underwater and he is meant to emerge reborn.”
When Karma leaves town to face her own complicated past, Flinch embarks on the restoration of an old boat with an equally tragic history. The project serves as a motif for both the rejuvenation of Byron Bay, with its growing influx of tourists and hippies, and Flinch’s voyage towards redemption.
Death of a Whaler is saturated with sea mythology and, for the most part, these allusions to symbols and superstitions add depth and meaning to the writing. Occasionally they feel clumsily executed and superfluous. Newton’s attempts at magic realism when establishing Flinch’s aqueous nature, as a kind of half-man, half-fish, are overlaboured and ill at ease with the realist tone of the novel. “Conceived in a grimy claw-foot bathtub” and born “with a torrent of water that the midwife claimed she’d never before witnessed” perhaps extends the metaphor a touch too far.
Nate tells Flinch that Moby Dick is about: “Madness. Obsession. The political and moral state […] at the time it was written.” Death of a Whaler is not devoid of madness and obsession and, as with any book set in a time of upheaval, the political and moral do assert their presence on the narrative. However, to suggest that Nerida’s novel is also about these things would be misrepresentative. This is a quieter story: less universal, more circumstantial, but none the less affecting. It does not need to be encumbered with such a glut of symbols and references. A simple tale about guilt, loss and forgiveness, Death of a Whaler is a novel with captivating characters, powerful poetic descriptions, and brilliantly captured dialogue. Ultimately, the burdensome weight of Newton’s influences and allusions cannot sink it.