“How to begin?
It is a perennial problem. Ever since the first campfires struggled to keep the clawed shadows of the forest at bay, storytellers have grappled with what combination of sound and meaning to set loose among the dancing firelight. Which words should be cast towards expectant faces?” (Chapter 1)
Sometimes you read a book that seems to pulse with life, and it pulses a little louder than others.
I’ve had a lot of free time over the past few months, and have spent much of it trudging to and from the library with an aching armload of books. I also started working at a book/gift store, and have been able to get my hands on a lot of reading copies of books. I’ve been doing a lot of reading.
But through all that reading this book manages to shine a little bit brighter in my mind than the others.
Carl Nixon tackles the expansive and ever-present theme of story-telling and the effect of words on life. It’s a tried and true tale. People love reading stories about how stories are powerful. People love reading about how stories affect the course of a life.
The Virgin & the Whale is unabashed in its praise of stories. It’s a story framed within a story – it leads you into the tale as if you were a child sitting at Nixon’s foot, well aware of the world he is about to weave, but happy to fall into it, anyway. It’s a concept that could have easily stumbled into the trite end of the spectrum, but doesn’t.
“My mother fell deeply in love with a man who had no memory.”
The novel is set in a small country in the Pacific South West in the early twentieth century – though it’s given a different name, it becomes clear that the country in question is New Zealand. Nixon disguises the landmarks and the characters with aliases. It becomes apparent as the novel progresses, that while the story is packaged with all the tapestries of fiction, it is in fact based on a true story. Maybe that’s why it resonates so well, though that is not the only reason.
Elizabeth Whitman, a nurse, is requested to undertake into her private care a soldier recently returned from war, with severe injuries and no memory of his identity. At the same time, Elizabeth is dealing with the fact that her husband is missing in the war, and, in order to keep up the spirits of her young son, Jack, she comes up with stories to tell him each night. Stories that bring comfort to both of them, stories that might help to ease the pain that would come if their worst doubts become reality.
“. . . she has, slowly, hesitantly at first, unsure if she is doing the right thing, but then with growing confidence, begun filling the emptiness with a story.” (Chapter 12)
Elizabeth decides to try the same method on the injured soldier, coaxing him out of his isolation with words. The words are not only a bridge between the two of them, but also one that gives the soldier a connection to this new blank reality.
Unable to dredge up any memory of his past, the soldier finds solace in building a new identity for himself, a new life. Of course, this comes at the expense of renouncing all those who inhabited his old life – his wife, Mrs. Blackwell, their old acquaintances – all of whom he can no longer remember, and thus, none whom he can claim. With words, he’s able to take back some of his power – but it’s a power that devastates his family and friends from his ‘past’ life. Nixon reveals how words have the power to create and sustain new life, but he doesn’t shy away from the fact that in building new worlds, we can sometimes choose to abandon the old ones.
“If Self is inextricably linked to the brain and the memories it holds, then what can be said of a man who has been left with his body intact but a brain as blank as a fresh fall of snow?” (Chapter 11)
I saw a post on tumblr recently that mentioned how someone might draw conclusions on your personality based on an act of yours that you might have forgotten – an act that acutely reveals your character. Thus, that someone will walk around knowing about a part of you that you don’t, because it’s no longer part of your memory. They possess a part of your identity that you didn’t even know you had.
It’s quite a chilling thought. I think we all like to pretend that we know the essential things about ourselves, but perhaps, an act that seems minute to us, might be momentous to another person, one on which they base their whole understanding of you. Even a small memory that is lost means an aspect of our identity that is lost.
Nixon carves the story so that it ends on an optimistic note – it is the bravery of Elizabeth, and the bravery of her memory-less soldier that is emphasized. It is the bravery of the two of them, who choose to embark on a new life together, based on their faith in their own exchanges, that ultimately resonates.
I know I’m not doing this book justice. Just know that if you read it, you will not be disappointed.