Inside the Whale marks the arrival of a blazing new talent: fizzing with eclectic characters and poignant imagery, Rooney’s heartwrenching debut is a story to relish, and to recommend passionately to everyone you know.
Stevie Stanford, recently widowed, must tell her family the truth — but the past is complicated and difficult to untangle. Meanwhile Michael’s memories are squashed into a shoebox (along with Queen Mathilda’s Dickin Medal for Bravery — for pigeons) ready for his move to hospital. Michael has never been good at putting things into words; he’s more comfortable with the click of Morse code. But Anna, a young healthcare assistant, has the patience — and rare tenderness — to eke out his story. And so he begins.
Heartbreaking and life-affirming, funny and deeply moving, this is the unforgettable story of Stevie and Michael — ordinary lovers torn apart by the extraordinary events of war.
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About the Author
Jennie Rooney was born in Liverpool in 1980. She studied history at the University of Cambridge and taught English in France before moving to London to work as a lawyer. Inside the Whale is her first novel.
Read an Excerpt
My mum was in her element during that hot September of 1939.
Over the years, she had developed a nervous streak. We became accustomed to hearing her mutter about the dangers of the motor car as she chopped onions. She fretted about untied shoelaces and ribbons on cardigan sleeves. She baulked at ponytails that could be yanked by any passing madman, and wrote letters to The Times about the perils of air travel, citing the misfortunes of a distant cousin who had been blown off course at the opening of the Greenwich Railway in a hot-air balloon and had crash-landed on the railway arches at London Bridge. She believed that any child who had the misfortune to place so much as a slice of cucumber in its mouth after having retrieved it from the floor would face an imminent and almost certain death.
Birthdays were particularly dangerous occasions as far as my mum, Vivien, was concerned. The very idea of carrying a cake bursting with naked flames into a darkened room made her left eye twitch. Vivien would lay a small bowl of water next to each person’s plate which we all had to clasp as the cake entered the room, our knees bent in readiness to extinguish the flames at the first sign of unruliness among the candles.
We woke up early on the first Sunday of September that year, and it felt like Christmas Day. My brothers put on their school uniforms for church, and left them on all day because everybody knew that if there was going to be a war, it was going to start then, and they wanted to be ready for it. I was wearing a pair of scrubbed white gloves that were reserved for special occasions and a navy blue pinafore that was getting rather too tight around the bust to be altogether seemly.
The war was announced at eleven o’clock. We were all in Mrs Bartram’s yard at Number 10, listening to Chamberlain on the wireless that she had balanced precariously next to a dead bee on the kitchen windowsill. Number 7 were there too. I picked up Mrs Bartram’s cat and ran my hand up its back towards its head. It growled at me as Chamberlain announced that we were at war and I noticed that the inside of its mouth was a surprisingly fierce shade of red.
I spent the afternoon with my younger brothers, Eddy and George, filling bags with government sand that had been left at the end of our road. At first we tried to be solemn, but the sand stayed between our toes and settled into the cracks of our hands and the bags ended up bulging with turreted sandcastles and small sculptures of domestic animals.
Meanwhile, our house was slowly filling up with water. Vivien was gleefully hiding brimming bowls under the settee and balancing full glass bottles next to our beds. She left heavy long-handled pans to ripple excitedly on the sideboard in the front room and hung rugs over the doors to allow for the quick smothering of fires. She lined the edges of the windows with putty and stuffed the chimney with newspaper. She placed a pile of neatly folded damp flannels on the mantelpiece in case of a sudden gas attack on the front room.
It was generally assumed, although never openly admitted, that if any part of the house were going to be invaded, it would undoubtedly be the front room. It had the nice curtains, after all. We lined the sandbags along the front wall in keeping with this accepted proposition and piled tins of condensed milk under the table in case of a siege. We planted cress in old cigarette tins and placed them on the windowsill, to prevent scurvy.
Vivien sighed happily as she looked around at all the precautions she was now allowed, if not obliged, to take. She slept more deeply that night than I had ever known, her hair splayed dramatically over the pillow and her arms hanging carelessly from the sides of the bed, snoring softly.
So that is how I remember the beginning of the war. Wet flannels and sand, and cress growing from damp cotton wool folded flatly in tins. There were no maps spread across the kitchen table, no series of small swastikas marking Hitler’s progress through the smaller countries of Europe, like in the history books that came after. There was no talk in our yard of concentration camps or of the rise of European dictatorship or of German economic stagnation. I know all that now, but it has been added later, laid gently over the bits I remember, like tracing paper.
And that is the problem with the beginnings of things.
It is a strange thing, sleeping with morphine. It rocks you, gathers you into its dark arms, and slithers with you over the surface of sleep. It softens nightmares like bathwater, and dulls the crashing, skidding pain in my throat. In the mornings I feel it pricking the edges of my skin, nestling in the cracks of my elbows and along my spine. It leaves my mind empty, alert. In the mornings, I remember everything.
I remember sequences of kings and queens, and the order of stations on the Northern Line, both branches. I remember Darwin’s lists of sub-races of pigeons, and how to tell a gurney from a logan. And I remember the long stories that Brendan Hardcastle used to tell me after school when we sat with swinging legs on the high wall that ran along the back of our yards, for Brendan always knew everything before I did.
It was Brendan who first told me about Mr Samuel Finley Breese Morse. He told me that, in 1844, Sam Morse attended the first public exhibition of his newly invented code. The display was held in the chamber of the Supreme Court of the United States of America in Washington. A young lady came forward and selected the words that Sam Morse was to send to his associate in Baltimore. She laid a piece of paper on the table in front of him, and the first message ever to be transmitted via an insulated electromagnetic wire was tapped out in full view of the US Commissioner of Patents, the young lady’s father.
The message arrived in Baltimore and was sent back over the same wire, and both times it asked the same question: What hath God wrought?
Twice transmitted, twice greeted with gasps, and twice left hanging, unanswered and ignorant of its own magnitude. After all, the twentieth century was not yet so much as a glint in the eye of the 1800s and that young lady could not possibly have known what the twentieth century would bring for two small boys swinging their legs over a back wall in 1931.
But what Brendan could not yet tell me was that ninety-seven years after that first message was sent, at the age of twenty and with a dent of forty-one years already blown into the sides of the new century, we would be wedging our knees into the dusty cracks of the Abyssinian desert and flattening our Royal Signals hats against our chests as Alf’s body was lowered into the ground. He could not tell me that when he turned his burnt neck to look at me that day I would not be able to hold his eyes, and that as I lay awake in bed that night I would remember the young lady in the chamber of the Supreme Court and I would think to myself, What indeed?
In the mornings, mostly, I remember that.
Reading Group Guide
1. What does the use of two voices for the narrative contribute to the unfolding of the story?
2. Given that the story emerges gradually from a wealth of detail, what first captures your interest and makes you want to keep reading?
3. Do you see any special significance in Michael’s explanations of the acoustic spectrum (page 16) and light waves and particles (page 117-118)?
4. Why do you think Michael is so resigned to his condition in hospital?
5. Stevie says that she has become “practical” rather than believing in stories. What do you think this means? Why does she regret it?
6. Stevie’s mother married “the wrong Reg.” What effect might this knowledge have had on Stevie?
7. Write paragraph-long descriptions of the personalities of Stevie and Michael. Do you think they would have had a good marriage?
8. Why can’t Stevie call Jonathan’s face to mind after the funeral?
9. Does Stevie’s decision to keep the truth from Emily prove, in the end, to have been a good one?
10. Why does Michael reveal the truth to Anna?
11. How does the author bring to life characters that appear only briefly or sporadically in the narrative — for example, Mollie, Alf, or Stevie and Michael’s parents?
12. Why is the novel called Inside the Whale?