Fa­ther-and-son dy­namic flensed

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Ro­han Wil­son

have heard it said that men are re­luc­tant to become fa­thers be­cause we haven’t yet fin­ished be­ing chil­dren our­selves. There’s quite a bit of truth to that, I sus­pect. But, then, how do any of us become men? Who teaches us? What are the rites of pas­sage that lead us into man­hood? These are the ques­tions Bris­bane writer Ben Hob­son seems to be con­tem­plat­ing in his mov­ing de­but novel, To Become a Whale.

We meet the fa­ther, Wal­ter Keogh, and the son, Sam Keogh, as they’re pre­par­ing for the fu­neral of Sam’s mother. Her ab­sence will be felt through­out the nar­ra­tive, re-emerg­ing at key mo­ments as a source of grief and of com­fort.

For Sam, a boy of 13, the loss is con­fus­ing and dis­turb­ing. He strug­gles to understand why his mother was taken away. Worse, it leaves him with a lonely fa­ther who is made dis­tant by grief. Wal­ter can’t bear liv­ing in the house where his wife died, so he takes Sam out into the coastal bush near More­ton Is­land and builds a shack for them to live in while he pon­ders what to do next.

This is where the cen­tral ten­sion of the nar­ra­tive starts to re­veal it­self. On the one hand, Wal­ter is Sam’s whole world. The pro­found love he feels for his fa­ther is present in ev­ery ac­tion he takes. He stud­ies him closely, learn­ing to read his moods. He em­u­lates his fa­ther’s ways of speak­ing and act­ing.

But, on the other hand, this love of­ten seems one-sided. Sam wants his fa­ther’s re­spect and at­ten­tion, and when it doesn’t ap­pear he is deeply hurt. His fa­ther ex­pects him to grow up and learn to be a man, but Sam isn’t sure ex­actly how to do that. The dy­namic be­tween them falls into a fa­mil­iar pat­tern: the re­luc­tant fa­ther, the dis­ap­pointed son.

This dy­namic holds steady for the next sec­tion of the novel, which is also the most com­pelling and well-re­alised. The fa­ther and son travel to Tan­ga­looma Whal­ing Sta­tion to work for the sea­son and make enough money to fin­ish build­ing their bush shack. It may come as sur­prise to many read­ers that Aus­tralia was still heav­ily in- volved in whal­ing as late as the 1960s, when the story is set. Hob­son has done his re­search here.

As Wal­ter and Sam fall into the rou­tine of butcher­ing the whales hauled ashore at the sta­tion, we’re never left with any doubt that the process moved along ex­actly how Hob­son de­scribes it. It’s a process that is as con­fronting to us as it is to Sam. All the sights and smells are vividly con­jured. We strug­gle along with him to make sense of the slaugh­ter.

But Hob­son is mak­ing a larger point here about cru­elty, too. The work the men do at Tan­ga­looma is hard and cease­less. There is no shirk­ing or dodging out. It leaves them sucked dry of life. The cru­elty of their sit­u­a­tion seems tied to the fate of the whales killed and dragged ashore, with ev­ery­one re­duced by the need­less suf­fer­ing of it all.

We see Tan­ga­looma through Sam’s per­spec­tive and, try as he might, he can’t understand the point of it. His fa­ther be­lieves that hard work will raise them up but mostly it keeps them down. When Sam is un­able to work at the same pace as the men, his fa­ther loses pa­tience and the rift be­tween them grows even wider. The cru­elty per­pet­u­ates.

It’s worth men­tion­ing at this point a lit­tle about how Hob­son pulls this all to­gether on the page. In terms of lan­guage, his clos­est con­tem­po­rary is prob­a­bly Favel Par­rett, au­thor of Past the Shal­lows and When the Night Comes. He writes with the same sense of di­rect­ness that Par­ret achieves, the same sense of nos­tal­gia for child­hood that un­der­pins so much of the emo­tion in the novel. He lingers for long mo­ments over small de­tails, al­low­ing his read­ers to fully ex­pe­ri­ence what Sam is see­ing and do­ing.

The book moves at an un­hur­ried pace as scenes build and add to each other. The drama is mostly con­fined to the day-to-day prob­lems Sam has in un­der­stand­ing the world of older men in which he finds him­self. It all feels thor­oughly true to life.

To speak too much of the end­ing would be to give away the game, but I will say that Hob­son finds a way to an­swer the ques­tions raised by the nar­ra­tive in his own idio­syn­cratic way. We are left sat­is­fied and hope­ful.

If you’ve en­joyed the work of Tim Winton, Par­rett and Sonya Hart­nett, then you’ll find some­thing to en­joy in To Become a Whale. Hob­son’s work sits com­fort­ably along­side those ter­rific au­thors. is the au­thor of two nov­els, The Rov­ing Party and To Name Those Lost.

Work­ers at the Tan­ga­looma Whal­ing Sta­tion cut­ting up a whale in 1960

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