Book Review: In a book about belonging - and not belonging - and loss

One morning, an enormous sperm whale beaches on a remote island in the Hebrides, a place where whales do not belong.
The Water All Around Us by Lynn MichellThe Water All Around Us by Lynn Michell
The Water All Around Us by Lynn Michell

It’s a surprise to everyone except a nine-year-old girl called Fenn, who’s been listening, and talking back, to the whale lost in their waters for days.

The arrival of the creature is a momentous event in the life of the island - none of the children go to school that day, and all the residents join the desperate work to keep the dying animal wet and cool, then attempt to refloat him on the next high tide.

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This is the opening image of The Water All Around Us, and from here we go back in time to learn about the weeks and months prior to the whale’s arrival.

We meet Fenn’s parents, a painter and a crofter tackling the challenge of making a good, sustainable life on the island, and the perhaps even greater challenge of understanding their wayward daughter.

We meet Jess, a former marathon swimmer, as at home in the sea as a human can be, who’s trying to escape from a terrible incident in her past. These characters creep up on you, introduced gently as they go about their ordinary lives in this extraordinary place.

They grip you stealthily, by degrees - by the final few chapters, I was in love with them.

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As the title suggests, this is a book dominated by water - love and awe for the ocean permeate every page.

The sea’s beauty and life-giving energy, and its danger and risks, are explored - as is the fact these two effects are inextricably linked. The sea is often both the problem and the solution.

Michell also delves into the impact humanity has on the oceans in return. Lyrical sections from the perspective of the whale himself heartbreakingly explore climate change and the impact of what we dump in our seas, whales dying with stomachs full of plastic.

The overwhelming energy of the book is hopeful though - personified in the reckless, pure soul of the child Fenn. In a book about belonging - and not belonging - and loss, she is the story’s defiant beating heart.