An authentic portrait of gay love in small town Britain: The Whale Tattoo reviewed

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In Jon Ransom’s debut novel, water seeps into the crevices between waking and dreaming, flooding the consciousness of narrator Joe. Set in the liminal landscape of Norfolk’s tidal wetlands, it’s an urgent and unsettling story of gay love, suppressed trauma and shortened lives. A working-class writer with no formal education, Ransom, raised in Norfolk, wrote the first draft on his phone on a bus. Muswell Press launched it with considerable success, including an appearance at Damian Barr’s literary salon.

After a beached whale tells Joe Gunner that death will stalk him wherever he goes, he leaves home. But two years later, he returns, to a town haunted by ghosts, some alive, some dead. He rekindles his relationship with magnetic local fisherman Tim Fysh (“one night has passed, and he’s already busted under my skin”), talks to his drowned sister Birdee, and picks up his sick father from the hospital.

As memories assault Joe, the narrative swings between past and present, revealing flashes of his childhood – the drifting mother, the homophobic paternal bullying. So absorbing is piecing together Joe’s past, you don’t see the twists coming, delivered with an understatement that gives you a boost.

Snatched sexual encounters and coastal Norfolk – rusting trawlers, rotting tides, “heavy” skies – are vividly summoned in visceral, immediate prose. The river flows greedily through the romance, a menacing brown tongue that “licks the mud flats like a thirsty animal.” He talks to Joe, torturing him with doubts. This rural backwater is not an idyll but an increasingly dark reflection of Joe’s troubled spirit. As the story unfolds, secrets emerge, though they cannot always be trusted: “The truth hides like rain on the river.

It looks like an authentic portrait of the gay experience in small town Britain. Joe and Tim don’t analyze their connection, they act on it, communicating in the direct and humorous vernacular of their class and gender. But they have always endured disapproving stares in this island community bound by rigid notions of masculinity, and both have internalized their shame and alienation.

whale tattoo is notable for its atmosphere, striking use of language, and the way the environment serves as an extension of Joe’s psyche. A powerful story of heartbreak, love and ultimately forgiveness, it speaks to the oppressive nature of growing up as an outsider in a world where violence is easier than words.

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