First published by The Sydney Morning Herald on 13 March 2014
It might be the responsibility of the modern writer to magnify, examine, or, at the very least, remark on the vast array of "things that trouble humans in the modern age". In this regard, there are very few specimens English author John Ironmonger's third novel Not Forgetting the Whale neglects to observe: peak oil, the sharemarket, interconnectedness, the paralysing effects of indecision, the relevance and comfort of faith and, above all, the uneasy but abiding concern that humans are selfish creatures primarily driven by the promise of short-term gain.
In the seaside Cornish village of Saint Piran (population 307), a mighty fin whale is spotted for the first time. In the very same moment, a stranger, naked and unconscious, washes up on the shore.
The stranger is Joe Haak, an investment banker fleeing an error in judgment and fears he has cost his employers hundreds of millions of dollars. His appearance in the village is the first of three moments that will bring the whole community together, with the great leviathan as their centrepiece. It's easy to see how Joe quickly finds refuge in St Piran, an unusually secluded setting whose residents comprise a charming ensemble of locals and long-term blow-ins with a believable bevy of quirks – although the women of St Piran are often lacking their third dimension.
The village serves as a rich and compelling contrast to the life Joe is fleeing. The flashbacks to that world – a fast-paced London investment bank – are confidently and humorously drawn, doubling as a very palatable "stock exchange for dummies" education. Ironmonger is unafraid of marrying contemporary urban existence with sleepy seaside life and his prose is seamless in its zig-zag from St Piran to London and back again.
Perhaps the most charming snippets of Joe's London life are the daunting exchanges with his ageing superior, Lew Kauffman. Kauffman's emotional connection to the sharemarket is at once frightening, confusing and beautiful, and his worldly, quick-fire rants and stern affection for Joe make for some cracking scenes. Just try reading them without picturing this book as a film.
As Joe settles into St Piran (quickly developing an infatuation with the vicar's wife), he is unable to leave behind his professional obsession with economic forecasting, and embarks on a mission to save the residents he now loves from an apocalypse he deems inevitable.
But the sociological mechanisms at play in St Piran don't add up for Joe. His faith in numbers is tested by that one unpredictable X factor, human nature. A community rises up, like the great flank of a mighty sea creature, to achieve what logic might never have predicted. Is forecasting the future based on the past really a mistake? Could poetry truly be closer to the truth than history?
Ironmonger is kind to his characters and it is clear he enjoys their company; he proffers an honest assessment of their flaws and the victory of their better nature. This well-plotted line between sentimental and cynical is a refreshing thing to observe.
This is an ambitious work. And there are many points at which it could have fallen flat in the hands of a less accomplished writer. Firstly, a narrative that hinges on far-fetched events can be a bitter pill to swallow; it risks isolating its readers by inviting a leap of faith that doesn't pay off. Secondly, blending a colourful array of controversial queries into a work of fiction is supremely difficult to do without reeking of a deliberate desire to be topical.
Here is a work of fiction that avoids these pitfalls. The more far-fetched moments manage to be charming, rather than jarring (although the final chapters might verge on corny for some). And it is, quite simply, good writing. It is as adept at character development, plot structure, warmth and humour as it is at putting its finger on the pulse, so that its insightful commentary on "things that trouble humans in the modern age" can be deftly woven, rather than worn on the sleeve.
At times, you might want to shake Joe. You might question his sanity and his moral compass, but mostly in the way a parent criticises her favourite son – because you have faith in his goodness and want him to be better than everybody else.