I chose this book because it had been longlisted (and now shortlisted) for the Women’s Prize this year. Also I wanted a book to read on the train and this looked good based on my experience of reading The Bees by Laline Paull. I also remembered that my book group had high praise for the earlier book. I wasn’t disappointed.
Because this is about the oceans, it is also a stark warning to humans about the damage being inflicted upon the seas. However there is a suggestion of optimism based on the adaptability of sea creatures.
The story is engaging. Life in the oceans is threatened, and the rituals and practices of thousands of years are no longer protection against man-made destruction. It’s a story for our times.
The main characters are very strong. Both are outsiders, one because she does not want to join in the herd activities, and the other because he was raised and trained by the US Navy. Outsiders in fiction are often the rescuers, and between them these two dolphins save the pods.
Laline Paull has an ability to digest and reproduce a great deal of information about the natural world, in this case about two kinds of dolphins, among other ocean creatures. While not ramming her research down your throat, she manages to give the reader confidence that she knows her stuff. The author’s imagination allows us to connect with life in ‘the vast’.
Anthropomorphising can be yukky, but not in this novel. The pressures and challenges of the dolphin pods have parallels in our own world. For example, the movement of people westward that produced the sacking of Rome, and the invasion of ancient Britain by the Angles and Saxons. In much the same way a pod of Spinner dolphins, who know themselves as the Longi, has been chased out of their home within an archipelago in the Indian Ocean. The survivors have relocated to another area and now live a decent quiet life but remember their exodus in an annual ritual. A young female spinner, Ea, hears a warning from a humpbacked whale but does not understand it.
The distant whale boomed again like faraway thunder. Then as his great billows of sound were still travelling across the ocean, he wailed across the top of them win a harsh and searing lament that filled Ea with sadness and rage. It faded away, and the silence that followed had a different quality. It was over. The whale had passed on, leaving Ea with the ache of relief that someone else understood loneliness and pain. (8)
She is a rebel, but honoured within the pod, which values care, sympathy, and other feminine characteristics. The Longi pod do not encourage strong feelings, but they have a way of dealing with them: the Shriving Moil:
The older adults began it, moving together at the centre. Now with group permission, everyone released their psychic distress, as a tangible burst of energy in the water. Ea had thought she was the only one in pain, but now she felt it coming into her body from her kin. She wanted to flee, at the same instant as she wanted to comfort them. She pressed her fins back against those people who reached theirs out to her, and were now twisting and clicking unselfconsciously. People were confessing terrible forbidden feelings: anger, resentment rage, thoughts of revenge – it came choking out in ragged clicks and cries. (29)
Ea is greatly upset by a meeting with a shoal of Manta Rays, and her fears take her and her mother into dangerous waters. Having inadvertently led her own mother into the jaws of a shark Ea leaves the pod.
She is taken by force into the megapod of 500 bottlenose dolphins, the Tursiops, the same dolphins that usurped her tribe. The dolphins are much bigger than Ea and she is easily captured by a teenage group. She is raped but makes some alliances within the hareem. This pod is large, noisy and the members are controlled through patriarchal bullying and violence. For example, here is the excitement of the hunt with the bottlenose dolphins.
At last the First Harem began to move. Fused into the greater motion and feeling the ocean again, Ea pushed forward alongside Devi [the number one female]. Up ahead was the massive kinetic power of the male alliance and she let it run through her whole body. She had never experienced this in the Longi pod, but here the male energy was so much stronger. Devi glanced across at her and speeded up. Keeping pace, Ea did not even notice. She was focused on the unfamiliar choreography of the Tursiops on the hunt. Her own peopled had never mentioned it and Ea could not help admiring how they constantly shifted into different patterns, a well-practiced team. (173)
Google, a bottlenose dolphin trained to be used by the US navy, escapes from a mission and wanders alone until he is put on a path to meet the megapod by the same whale as issued the warning to Ea. He meets and falls for Ea, but their time together is too short.
Humans are behind destruction of the ocean: plastic waste floats and creates a barrier in the ocean and interrupts the routes of animals and the spawning season; and there are some fishing fleets that hoover up the dolphins. Some of the bottlenose dolphins are able to escape thanks to Google and Ea and to join the survivors of the Longi to find the whale and his group of survivors. We know this because the prologue hinted at survival.
This is a tale of families, loyalty, survival, sacrifice, and the things that support survival and those that harm the community.
Laline Paull was born in England. Her parents were first-generation Indian immigrants. She studied English at Oxford University, screenwriting in Los Angeles, and theatre in London. She has had two plays performed at the Royal National Theatre, where she is currently adapting her first novel, The Bees. She is a member of BAFTA and the Writers’ Guild of America. She lives in the English countryside with her family. [From the Women’s Prize for Fiction website]
The Bees was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2015.
Pod by Laline Paull, published in 2022 by Corsair. Shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2023. 261pp.