The Whale Tattoo by Jon Ransom

Having attended the online launch for Jon Ransom’s The Whale Tattoo and stayed in with Jon, here, to chat about the book I was desperate to fit in a review. I’m delighted to share that review today and would like to thank Kate Beal at Muswell Press for sending me a copy of The Whale Tattoo.

Published by Muswell Press on 3rd February 2022, The Whale Tattoo is available for purchase in all good bookshops and online, including directly from the publisher, from Bookshop.org and Gays the Word.

The Whale Tattoo

When a giant sperm whale washes up on the local beach it tells Joe Gunner that death will follow him wherever he goes. Joe knows that the place he needs to go is back home.

Having stormed out two years ago, it won’t be easy, nor will returning to the haunted river beside the house where words ripple beneath the surface washing up all sorts of memories. Joe turns to his sister, Birdee, the only person who has ever listened. But she can’t help him, she drowned two years ago.

Then there’s Tim Fysh, local fisherman and long-time lover. But reviving their bond is bound to be trouble.

As the water settles and Joe learns the truth about the river, he finds that we all have the capability to hate, and that we can all make the choice not to.

Ransom’s fractured, distinctive prose highlights the beauty and brutality of his story, his extraordinarily vivid sense of place saturates the reader with the wet of the river, and the salty tang of the sea.

My Review of The Whale Tattoo

Joe’s home, but life isn’t easy.

The Whale Tattoo is an astonishing book. Jon Ransom’s writing manages to be simultaneously brutal and violent as well as poetic and moving. The quality of his prose is mesmerising. There’s such variety of sentence structure, an ebb and flow of past and present that mimics the tides against which the book is set, and an incredibly vivid and vital appeal to the senses that at times it’s almost unbearable to read. This is not a criticism, but more a wonderment at the impact of such writing. The settings are so vividly depicted that the reader can smell and taste them every bit as much as Joe can.

There is, ironically, much that might offend a reader in The Whale Tattoo, with many expletives, quite explicit sexual reference and considerable mention of bodily fluids, and yet Jon Ransom’s writing remains tender and affecting. Discovering Joe’s complex relationship with his father, with his sister Birdee, with his lover Fysh and with the river is transfixing. The liquidity of the prose, the references to water, and the impact of such water in the plot, create an almost dreamlike state so that it is difficult to know what Joe is remembering accurately, what he has devised for his own purposes and what is a manifestation of his considerable grief.

And grief is central to the narrative to the extent that Joe’s mental health is unbalanced and yet perfectly understandable. Jon Ransom is exploring the nature of grief, of identity, of memory and family relationship in The Whale Tattoo in the most innovative and convincing ways. But seeping through all of this complex, compelling narrative is love. Joe learns that love and hate are very much interwoven and his adoration of Fysh is so beautifully presented that I could feel his emotions almost viscerally.

The Whale Tattoo is almost impossible to review. It’s unlike anything I’ve read before. It’s disturbing, honest and seeps into the psyche of the reader in the same way water pervades the narrative. I thought Jon Ransom’s writing was outstanding. The Whale Tattoo is not a book I’ll forget in a hurry.

About Jon Ransom

Jon Ransom was a mentee on the 2019 Escalator Talent Development scheme at the National Centre for Writing. He was awarded a grant in 2021 by Arts Council England to develop his next novel. Ransom’s short stories have appeared in Foglifter Journal, SAND Journal, Five:2:One, and most recently in Queer Life, Queer Love. He lives in Cambridgeshire.

Follow Jon on Twitter @JonLRansom and Instagram.

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