2017 Reviews · Australian · fiction · literary

Book Review: To Become a Whale by Ben Hobson

Title: To Become a Whaleto become a whale small

Author:  Ben Hobson

Published: June 1st 2017

Publisher: Allen & Unwin

Pages: 404

Genres:  Fiction, Literary, Australian

RRP: $29.99

Rating: 5 stars

To Become a Whale tells the story of 13-year-old Sam Keogh, whose mother has died. Sam has to learn how to live with his silent, hitherto absent father, who decides to make a man out of his son by taking him to work at Tangalooma, then the largest whaling station in the southern hemisphere. What follows is the devastatingly beautiful story of a gentle boy trying to make sense of the terrible reality of whaling and the cruelty and alienation of his new world, the world of men. 

Set around Moreton Island and Noosa in 1961, To Become a Whale is an extraordinarily vivid and haunting novel that reads like an instant classic of Australian literature. There are echoes of Craig Silvey, Favel Parrett, Tim Winton and Randolph Stow in this moving, transformative and very Australian novel.

My review:

Brisbane based English and Music Teacher Ben Hobson makes a splash on the Australian writing scene with his debut novel, To Become a Whale. An authentically written tale, To Become a Whale is an incredible journey in the process of grief and the difficult territory a thirteen year old boy on the cusp of masculinity must negotiate.

To Become a Whale opens at a sad and defining point in 13-year-old Sam Keogh’s life. Sam’s mother has just died of an undisclosed illness. While Sam or ‘boy’ as he is often referred to in the novel, grapples with his grief, his silent and largely absent father becomes the sole figure Sam must rely on. Their relationship is a strained and tenuous one. In attempting to deal with his own grief and now bearing the responsibility for the care of his son, Walter, Sam’s father, decides to strengthen his son’s spirit in the only way he knows how, through back-breaking hard work. This leads father and son to work at Tangalooma and a huge whaling station. Here, this sensitive teenager must negotiate his feelings towards the work his father and colleagues are doing at the whaling station, forcing him to grown up quickly. At its core, To Become a Whale is the story of a young boy learning the ways of men in an adult world, while dealing with the loss of a parent.

To Become a Whale first caught my eye a couple of months ago, when I read an in-depth Q & A with the author, Ben Hobson. It gave me a solid grounding for what I might expect to read when I was able to devote the time to this moving Australian novel. I had an early indication from the Q & A and a number of reviews I had already read on this novel that I was going to appreciate it, a lot. What I didn’t expect was to be completely affected by this novel and the main protagonist, Sam Keogh.

Although the opening was a sad start to this beautifully written novel, the scene where young Sam Keogh must attend the funeral and say goodbye to his beloved mother, was an integral part to the story. This pivotal event marks the turning point of the events that occur throughout the story. It also signals the start of the grieving process for Sam and his father, which continues throughout the novel. Hobson handles this aspect of the novel with insight and sensitivity.  I often wanted to shake some sense into Sam’s frustrating father, Walter. Despite my frustration with Walter, I believe Hobson handles the complex nature of family and adult relationships, with a depth of common understanding.

As an adult writer, I would imagine it would be difficult to get inside the voice of a 13-year-old boy and refine this voice in such a way that it appears authentic to the reader. Hobson seems at ease in filling the boots of his young protagonist. In fact, I will say he nails it completely. Hobson delivers Sam’s unique voice in a way that the innocence, deep hurt, confusion and growth of his character becomes evident to the reader. I loved Sam’s narration and world view, it  also seemed to capture the nostalgia of the era in which the novel is set. Walter, or ‘father’, as he is referred to in much of the novel, is a well defined character. He is the ideal reflection of the typical Australian bloke in the 1950’s/60’s era. Hobson excels in bringing us the character of Walter so vividly to the pages of his novel.

A significant aspect of To Become a Whale and the overarching theme that primarily encouraged me to want to select this book to read was the whaling background. Hobson’s stance on the whaling section of this novel is delivered with a careful balance between reality and brutality. Through Hobson’s measured prose, we can glean much about the whaling industry, from the processes to the grinding work. Deeply informing, the whaling segments novel were utterly compelling. It is hard not to read these parts of narrative without wanting to shed a tear or two. It did give me a fascinating insight into the largest whaling station in the southern hemisphere and one I did not know anything about prior to reading this novel. My knowledge on whaling only extends to a local whaling station that is now a museum in Albany, in the  far south of Western Australia which I visited some years ago. What struck me the most about the whaling based passages in this particular story was the writing, which was simple, yet honest and full of dense feeling. This style of writing also extends to the whole of the novel.

Hobson chooses to close To Become a Whale off in a deeply meaningful and poignant way. It was in keeping with the overall tone of the novel and I loved it. The connection between the human and the animal world is emphasised at the closing point in the novel. Hobson handles this aspect with a refined sense of poise, which I admired greatly.

To Become a Whale is a resonating piece of new Australian literature. If Ben Hobson’s first novel is anything to go by, Hobson clearly has a bright and illustrious future ahead of him.

To Become a Whale by Ben Hobson was published on June 1st 2017 by Allen & Unwin. Details on how to purchase the book can be found here.

To learn more about the author of To Become a Whale, Ben Hobson visit here.


3 thoughts on “Book Review: To Become a Whale by Ben Hobson

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