By Ian Olsen
As part of the Chapter & Verse literature festival at the Bluecoat, I attended a session with first-time novelist Jennie Rooney, who read from Inside the Whale and also included a Q & A session. Firstly, I highly recommend you visit such events, they afford a rare insight into the development and motivation of the writer’s creative process. Secondly, the book.
My praise is unbounded I have to admit. This is one of the most beautifully conceived and executed works I have read. It is the tale of Stevie (Stephanie) and Michael: two young people, born in the 1920s, growing, living and working in the Old Kent road area of London; they meet fall in love and are then torn apart by the advent of WWII. Each chapter alternates between the voices of Stevie and Michael, their lives in the present and their reminiscences of the past. Michael is terminally ill in hospital and unable to speak silently revisits the pain and madness of the war and all that it cost him. Stevie’s autumn years see her living back with her daughter and granddaughter. It is also how their lives unknowingly overlap at the periphery after a lifetime of no more than whispers and stolen glimpses.
The language and construction is truly stunning. An unassuming poetic narrative gently leads the reader through a story of very real emotive truism. It concerns the human condition and is rendered without insistence, indulgence or cynicism and always with empathy. It essentially deals with silences or more accurately, with the things we should and wanted to have said; of those moments we can all recall that slipped by almost unnoticed and all too quickly.
I have to say ‘read it!’. Descriptively colourful, emotionally identifiable. Jennie Rooney is what I consider to be good in contemporary British talent. A wonderful and ‘must read’ debut.