The Whiteness of the Whale

  • David Poyer
  • St. Martin's
  • 336 pp.

A novel of high, almost constant suspense, and no relief; if that’s your ticket, this is your book.

There is an old adage among fiction writers that David Poyer has learned perhaps too well:   First, make terrible things happen to your characters. Then, make things even worse.  

The Whiteness of the Whale piles disaster on disaster, and all the while the eight characters are stuck in a sub-freezing miasma in the Antarctic Ocean, where seawater freezes almost instantly on deck, the relatively small craft tilts and wallows in the troughs of huge, threatening waves, and the wind-driven snow and sea spray seem almost incessant.  Black Anemone is a motor-sail craft that was clearly not built for these brutal conditions. There’s no place to get warm, everyone is caged up “like rats in an underfunded lab,” sleep comes in brief spurts, there’s not enough water for washing, and so, after a week or so, everyone stinks.

The misery is broken for a tantalizingly brief moment when a few of the characters are allowed on board an Argentine navy ship, where it is warm and the food is hot and plentiful.  But, after what seems like the blink of an eye, we’re back on board the freezing, lurching, cramped   Anemone.

The eight crewmen and women are searching for Japanese whaling ships, hoping to intercept them and slow the killing by inserting the Anemone between the whalers and the whales.  When the Japanese fleet is finally encountered, however, the anti-whalers get inexplicably violent themselves, pretty much obliterating any remaining sympathy I had for them.

Poyer knows his whales and his maritime lore, and lets us in on the fact that at least one whale is out of its normal range, and behaving bizarrely.  The moments of suspense – everyone’s life is in danger almost constantly – come fast and furiously, and the sea scenes, both above and below the ocean surface, are well drawn.  But there just isn’t any let-up; the reader needs a break!

Further, the failure of this bruised and battered gang to turn back when they have a chance seems so recklessly foolhardy that I had trouble staying inside this story.  Are they all nuts?  Despite broken bones, a metal sliver in one woman’s eyeball, the mate near-fatally gashed in the abdomen by a slashing cable, they keep on with this voluntary crusade and, sure enough, things get worse.

When three of these adventurers choose to go swimming with the whales amid the icebergs I just began to feel they were daft. 

A novel of high, almost constant suspense, and no relief.  If that’s your ticket, this is your book. 

Phil Harvey’s short stories have appeared in 15 publications. His new novel, Show Time, was published in May 2012.


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