PD Smith

Leviathan or, The Whale

08 July 2009 | Reviewing, TLS | Post a comment

The Times Literary Supplement has just published my review of Philip Hoare's Leviathan or, The Whale, the deserving winner of this year's Samuel Johnson prize.

“Perhaps it is because I was nearly born underwater.” The first sentence of Philip Hoare’s memorable study of whales points teasingly to an early affinity between author and subject. His mother began to feel labour pains while on a tour of a submarine in Portsmouth harbour. As a boy he lay awake at night listening to the “clanking dredgers” gouging a channel through Southampton Water for the liners and container ships.

But although the sea was a formative influence it was also a source of anxiety: “I have always been afraid of deep water.” School trips to Southampton’s municipal swimming pool did nothing to cure his fear. He only learnt to swim as an adult. But now he admits to feeling claustrophobic if he is far from the sea and, like Ishmael in Herman Melville’s epic novel Moby-Dick (1851), Hoare is “haunted” by the whale.

Read my review here and listen to Claire Armitstead's interview with the author at the Guardian.

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