The Whale House by Sharon Millar

by Shivanee Ramlochan, Paper Based Blogger

Welcome to the 2015 Paper Based Advent Book Blog! Day Two’s selection brings us one of Peepal Tree Press’ outstanding debut short fiction collections of this year, launched at the NGC Bocas Lit Fest, and since fêted to significant critical acclaim: Sharon Millar’s The Whale House.

If Sharon Millar were a markswoman, you get the impression she would keep her hands steady, her aim unerring, and her powder dry: that’s how the stories in The Whale House hold themselves up on the page. An unsentimental dismantling of complex constructs is Millar’s forte: here, she tackles grief and decay in both the human and natural environment, suggesting that we’re more like the beasts we hunt than we’d like to believe.

The author doesn’t villify or exalt any of her characters in absolute terms: instead, she shows them set in stark, often brutal relief against scenes of stunning beauty and inevitable decay. She tackles a mother’s heartrending resignation to a deep-rooted illness; another mother grappling with rage and fear, learning of her child’s murder; a master cockfighter who prizes both his champion roosters and his mysterious, witching woman: this is a Trinidad at once familiar and seductive in its insights, in its capacity to make new alcoves out of everyday destinations.

The whole is woven with an awareness of the environment, of its capacity to cradle and destroy, that grounds this collection with certainty as ancient as bedrock, as beautiful as a waterfall’s cascade. As the principal figure of the final story, “Spelunking”, remarks:

“The forest has no time for town shenanigans like flashy planes or making the village my own exotic backdrop. The forest has an instinct for this type of behaviour, even if you hide it from yourself.”

You might come to the book for Millar’s Commonwealth prizewinning story, which is the work’s titular piece, but you’ll stay for the whole, astonishingly well-knit ecosystem.

We recommend it for: field naturalists with an affinity for poetry in their scientific research; readers of Alice Munro and Elizabeth Walcott-Hackshaw; fans of well-plotted stories marked by sensually replete language and symbolism.

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