It is 1919. Elizabeth Whitman is working as a nurse in the local hospital, waiting for her husband to return from war, though he is missing in action, 'presumed dead'. She keeps him alive for their four-year-old son, Jack, by telling the story of a man she calls The Balloonist, who went away in a hot-air balloon and has adventures in exotic countries. When she is asked to nurse a returned soldier whose head injury has reduced him to an animal-like state with no memory, Elizabeth starts telling stories to him. It is through them that she manages to engage his interest and offer him a new life . . . in more ways than one.
The Virgin and the Whale
Nixon, Carl. 2013. [Genre: Literary Fiction]
The Virgin and the Whale is really three stories: that of the narrator who tells of how he came across the second story (which he claims to be true) and how he made it into fiction; Elizabeth Whitman, a local hospital nurse in the aftermath of WWI, who becomes the private care nurse for a man who has lost his memory; and finally The Balloonist, the adventurer who stars in the stories Elizabeth tells her four year old son to put off telling him that his father is unlikely to be coming home.
I loved how Nixon wove the three tales together. Although Elizabeth's story, which takes up the bulk of the novel, was undoubtedly my favourite, it would have been a lesser book without the other two. Through the voice of the narrator one muses upon the nature of stories - what makes them fictional as opposed to truth and whether that separation is actually important in the long run. It's a very fun tool that Nixon uses to twist the reader's perceptions and add in little pieces of truth and untruth throughout the story's layers. For example, Elizabeth Whitman's story is set in the fictional city of 'Mansfield,' which any reader with a knowledge of a particular Southern hemisphere city will instantly recognise as a very real and very accurately described place. Even those without any knowledge of said city could easily narrow it down. Which makes the reader question why the narrator chose to fictionalise it so badly, what was the point of disguising it at all, and then, does it really matter? It's a testament to Nixon's story telling that months after reading the book I'm still questioning whether Nixon really is the voice of the narrator and Elizabeth Whitman's story is true, or if he is not the character of the narrator and it's all made up . . . . I'm also questioning whether in the end, I really want to know.
The third story, that of the Balloonist, is equally important. A mother is struggling to tell her son their truth - that his father is not coming home. It's really quite something to watch both mother and son latch onto the Balloonist for dear life as he adventures through the jungle, getting into scrape after scrape, but surviving each time. The Balloonist starts as a sad representation of the MIA father, with each survival representing Elizabeth trying to find another way to break the news to their son, but he quickly takes on a life of his own and comes to represent . . . himself, just as his story becomes more fantastical and more of a lifeline for mother and son.
As I've already mentioned, the second story contained within The Virgin and the Whale was my favourite. Elizabeth becomes the nurse of a man whose traumatic experience during the war combined with a massive head injury means he has no memory. But it also transcends that simple summary. The story touches on class, early psychiatry and medical care, war, attitudes to the ill and disabled, the fabric of a city, love . . . . and revolves around two strong female characters (Elizabeth and the soldier's wife) who choose to deal with a man who doesn't know who he is in very different ways. Ultimately, it once again comes down to stories and truth as the man-with-no-memory starts deciding what his own story will be and how much the story of a man he no longer recognises as himself matters.
The whole of The Virgin and the Whale is told with beautiful language and an engaging style, the characters stayed with me long after the story had ended (I read this book in October last year) and the story-weaving is excellent.
A real gem of a tale with great insight into the nature of stories. I hope it gets some recognition outside of its country of origin. Also, who could resist that title and cover?