The Whale Tattoo by Jon Ransom review – a powerful new voice of gay working-class life | Fiction


Joe’s Norfolk town might be an idyllic place. Marshes stretch to the sea, eels wriggle up creeks and oystercatchers stalk the mudflats. Here “mirrored pools … burst with sky”, and the tide “comes and goes, like one huge breath”, transforming water into land and land into water.

Yet Ransom’s powerful debut is as bucolic as a fish hook through the cheek. Fishermen scrape a living near rusted tankers and burnt-out cars, the water below them “the same filthy grey” as the sky above. Feelings are bottled up and families strain with violence and resentment. Almost everything is old, battered or rotten. Prosperity and progress feel a long way away; the internet barely gets a mention.

Joe is back after a sort-of escape – a spell working at a nearby fish and chip shop – looking for Tim, a red-haired charmer who is the love of his young life. But Tim has married a woman, Joe’s bullying father is in and out of hospital, and Joe’s head is a busy place. A river drowns out his thoughts, whispering of doubt and despair. He fixates on a sperm whale carcass he once saw on the beach, “bruise-coloured in beach-light”, and thinks of death. It does not take long to come.

Ransom, who grew up in Norfolk, wrote the first draft of The Whale Tattoo on his phone on the bus. The result is a novel of fractured immediacy and growing menace that clings close to its protagonist and flits back and forth in time. Its focus on Joe and his shifting, watery thoughts – smoke is “blue”, hair “like wet sand” and Tim’s surname is Fysh – means that the supporting cast and plot take a while to coalesce.

It’s testament to Ransom’s skill that The Whale Tattoo still grips throughout. He has a fine sense of place and a wonderful command of language, whether writing of flies “shiny with summer” or a rabbit’s “brown smudge against silvered marsh”. Ransom’s focus on the dreariness of Joe’s town makes moments of beauty precious; his exploration of inner life gives the sudden drama of public toilet trysts or boat-bound brawls a jolting physicality.

As spring moves to summer, Joe acquires surprising allies and must choose between forgiveness and revenge. The Whale Tattoo is a book about trauma, but it’s also about healing, trust and a young man working his way through the gloom like a boat in sea mist. This eloquent, heartfelt debut pulls the reader right beside him, and announces Ransom as a writer of real talent.

The Whale Tattoo by Jon Ransom is published by Muswell (£9.99). To support the Guardian and the Observer buy a copy at Delivery charges may apply.

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