by Richard Seward
Newton, Blue Mark Books, hb, 18 [pounds sterling]
It is the 1960s and David is about to embark upon his doctoral studies. A research trip to the Hebrides ensues, but David becomes distracted by a whale who regularly visits the local waters. Over the next few years, David devises a way to communicate with the whale--named Tisala--and he sets about teaching Tisala about science, music, religion, history, politics, and much else.
The remainder of the novel is a chronicle of the conversations with Tisala and, goodness, this is a whale with strident opinions. I have no objection to preposterous fictional scenarios. They can work very well in works of satire, and I could never be friends with anyone who didn't regard Gulliver's Travels as one of the glories of English literature. The problem with this fantastical excursion is that it lacks subtlety. The whale holds forth on any number of issues: education, population growth, warfare, music, you name it and the point is that the whale is supposed to provide fresh perspectives and insights. He doesn't. It often feels like Tisala is channelling, with uncanny prescience, the jejune musings of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens.
Tisala does have interesting moments. The whale naturally wants to know why whales have been hunted by humans. This paves the way for some enlightening accounts of a very dark history. If Newton had written a book about whaling it would probably have been very good. He has clearly done the research. I also admire his imagination--when did you last read about a whale who likes Beethoven? --but Tisala is far too long, lacks narrative pulse, and trots out too many hackneyed analyses of complex subjects. Perhaps it is a mischievous exercise in exposing the frailties of contemporary 'philosophical fiction?