Not Forgetting the Whale by John Ironmonger, book review: Now, that’s a proper crash

The protagonist, Joe Haak, an analyst at city traders Lane Kaufmann develops a piece of software that can see into the future

As the economy reels, supermarket giants fall to their knees, and Heathrow scans its passengers for signs of Ebola, so comes Not Forgetting The Whale, a novel that wonders how we might behave when the end is nigh.

Joe Haak, an analyst at city traders Lane Kaufmann, has developed a piece of software that can see into the future. By combing through every piece of financial journalism, every scrap of knowledge of every last supply chain, and every piece of economic activity in recorded history, Cassie (the Computer Aided Share Selection and Investment Engine) can, apparently, look ahead by a few hours and forecast share prices.

Led by Cassie into a spectacularly disastrous trade, a terrified Joe flees to the remote Cornish fishing village of St Piran. Then, as he begins to find some peace, Cassie starts predicting the end of the world.

Ironmonger clearly enjoys the contrast between the City and St Piran, where time runs slow, and, as one character notes, “the tranquillity of the village was almost geological in its permanence”. The Cornish passages are fable-like and dreamy,  while in London, traders whoop and Louboutins click.

The narrative weaves between the past and present, London and Cornwall, creating a tension that hums beneath Joe’s attempts at settling into his new home. There’s an atmospheric encounter between the protagonist and his boss, the mysterious Lew Kaufmann, while down in St Piran’s, a whale appears in the bay. But whether it is a symbol of Hobbes’s Leviathan or of Jonah’s deliverance, well, there’s little time to find out.

When events start to unravel they’re wonderfully underplayed. I was reminded of Meg Rosoff’s How I Live Now, when the narrator tells us that “something like seven or seventy thousand people got killed” in a London bombing. This is human tragedy beyond scale, yet our focus is entirely on the ark that is St Piran’s. 

For all its switches in time and glimmering prose, the last third of the book offers few surprises. And while Joe Haak, Lew Kauffmann, and St Piran’s stern vicar, the Reverend Alvin Hocking, are well-drawn, the female characters feel flimsy. Joe’s love interest, Polly Hocking, is a flirt and little else, while the romantic novelist Demelza veers perilously close to cliché.

That said, this is a tremendously enjoyable book. And as the front pages crowd with headlines that grow ever more grim, Not Forgetting The Whale offers a very welcome alternative.

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