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To Become A Whale by Ben Hobson

PUBLISHED BY ALLEN & UNWIN
REVIEW BY KAT ROBERTSON

Sam's mother dies when he is only 13 years old, and his world implodes when he is forced to live with his estranged father. Set in 1961, Sam is pushed into employment at a whaling station, and has to learn to survive this harsh new environment – or be destroyed by it.

Despite the limited number of characters, the story is surprisingly complex. Sam's life is in an intense state of upheaval, and every experience is new to him. In an unfamiliar environment he learns quickly about the complexities of adult relationships, with their insincerities and shows of strength. As his father subjects him to one damaging experience after another, it is apparent that he is passing on his failings to his son. Will Sam develop a relationship with his father, or merely survive him?

Apart from the obvious polarity between father and son, author Hobson has developed a tremendous depth of character for each of them. His father's failings at raising Sam are all the more heart-breaking because of how hard he is trying. It is impossible to know how he's going to react to a challenge, and if he'll do so in anger. This lurking danger would, by itself, be lessened if not for Sam. Desperate to please his father, he is still strong enough to stand up to him when he knows something is wrong. Hobson carefully negotiates between showing the complex raw emotions that Sam experiences during his trials, and the naïve, conscious way that he attempts to handle them.

The postmodern Australian archetype of structuring the locations around the fathomless, uncontrollable ocean is combined with the pathos of whaling to create a rough, uncompromising environment against which Sam must fight. There is little room for emotion, and Sam must learn to face the waves and become hard like the surrounding sandstone mountains, or risk being washed away.

 

Find this novel in store at Planet Books. Ask the friendly staff for guidance too, and they’ll be more than happy to order you in a copy if it’s already sold out.