Read time:2 minute, 9 seconds

Rating: 4 out of 5.

If you’re looking for a gay-themed novel that swerves the well-worn tropes of camp queens discovering their true selves in London amid a sea of party drugs, pumping dance music and sexual promiscuity, I can strongly recommend The Whale Tattoo by debutant Jon Ransom.

I have to confess that this strange and compelling book has been sitting on my office shelf for a couple of months; it actually came out in February. I get sent loads of books for review and I just hadn’t got around to this one. More fool me: I cannot recall when a book – especially one from a first-time author – has had such an effect on me.

Joe, our protagonist, is gay. He loves his sister, misses his dead mother and hates his father. He is very fond of his fuck-buddy Fysh, the relationship complicated by Fysh’s marriage (to a woman). As Joe goes about his business, believing that the sperm whale washed up on the nearby Norfolk beach is a harbinger of death, Ransom’s distinct, fractured prose helps to create an almost physical sensation of decay, the marshy East Anglian landscape where land and water blur, adding to the feeling of impermanence and insecurity. 

Much of the action takes place during a heatwave, and I was reminded of books and films set in America’s Deep South (the movie In the Heat of the Night sprang to mind) where the hot weather – so vividly described by Ransom that I swear I started to sweat – adds to the sense of decay and putrefaction. 

The central relationship between Joe and Fysh is, in some respects at least, refreshing, not least because Ransom ’s characters avoid introspection and self-analysis. Their sex is real and raw – lots of spitting and shoving – and the disapproval of Fysh’s brother and Joe’s father does nothing to stop them doing what they want…and there isn’t a rainbow flag in sight. They follow their sexual instincts, but do not for a moment contemplate their “identity”. 

For sure, The Whale Tattoo’s themes of death, decay and – some might say – nihilism leap off every page but, for me at least, this is ultimately a story of redemption, of being pulled back from the brink and being able to move forward after tragedy and despair. And while the story has its fair share of violence, hatred and bigotry, it’s also a tale of love…and I loved it.

The Whale Tattoo by Jon Ransom is published by Muswell Press.

About the author

Rob Harkavy

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