BOOK REVIEW: The Whale Tattoo by Jon Ransom

May 13, 2022

The Whale Tattoo

Jon Ransom

When a giant sperm whale washes up on the local beach it tells Joe Gunner that death will follow him wherever he goes. Joe knows that the place he needs to go is back home. Having stormed out two years ago, it won’t be easy, nor will returning to the haunted river beside the house where words ripple beneath the surface washing up all sorts of memories.

Ronson’s captivating prose tangs and stings the mind like wet shorts on a cold beach, words are picked up by the howling wind of his narrative and thrown against your eyes, gritty, harsh utterly British, you squint, your eyes water, or are they tears? This is not the Norfolk of boating brochures, this is Constable dragged by a coughing Maggi Hambling through the mudflats at low tide and left for the wind to slice.

There’s no let up to this grinding grey misery, an everyday existence scraped with rage from the rusting rotting locations of these flat marshlands, and then his sun comes out and his prose washes everything in the most brilliant forensic light, squinting in the beauty revealed in such authentic detail hurts, the many strands of this story rippling like sunlight on the waves, bouncing and tumbling in and on each other, but relentlessly coming in, there’s no escaping the tide and in this book Ronson’s deep connection to time and place stakes us out at low tide, as his books ominous sucking grey water rises around us.

Will we drown or float, or urgently gasp breath as the treacherous story sucks us down in a sentence to sit amongst the dead who so populate this landscape.

There are far too few books of working-class gay life, and few celebrate the emotional depth of Queer lads like The Whale Tattoo does, allowing this small-town boy to grow to a man and although berated by life and refused opportunity by resentful family, society or love still finds precious moments to cling on to and rise to the surface of this murk.  Joe is an amazing Queer character, fully fleshed out, we live in his mind, feel each hesitation and grasp with his hands on reeds and rotting logs to keep buoyant in this landscape dominated by anguish & loss.  We feel the vibrant lust of Joe’s sexual experiences, the urgent, furtive grubby warmth and his longing and recognition of the brief moments of intimacy he shares with Tim Fysh an old lover and local fisherman. We feel his bold hopes, we know his thoughts, the books’ narrative drumbeat keeps us close to him, next to him, feeling his breathing, anticipating his thoughts. It’s disturbingly intimate but feels utterly authentic.

The glint in protagonists Joe’s difficult life, unbalanced by the stresses of grief and coping as best he can is the power of his resilience, it’s like a shimmering nacres layer hidden under rough mussel shells, a caustic polish revels this audacious grasp of the power of redemption.  We feel this lad struggling for identity and connection in this churning, ebbing world, his only constant on the tides the River and it’s imagined brutally honest voice.

The book is alive in the hands, no easy read, it wriggles and tries to leap away from you. I had to put it down more than once as a sentence took a turn into the brutal crepuscular silence and the rough marsh came for me. I laid down and wept.

The book is a magical exploration of grief and love, but so rooted in a physically real world as to shock. I’m sure every time I opened it, I could hear the seagulls wheeling overhead and smell the tang of brine. Ronson’s remarkable ability to capture a moment of beauty wrapped up in fractured unreliable memories of lives lost is a disturbing delight. As we learn more of Joe’s relationship with his Father, his dead sister who he still talks to every day, and his longing, lust and love for Fysh, his lover. It’s complex and reflects, hugging the stillness of silent rockpools in moments which feel like they are eternal, before crashing down into sexy opportunistic reality. The world unfolds like fronds of buoyant seaweed once more afloat and waving. What seemed piles of green reeking weeds reveal their natural beauty. This is an unforgiving book, with no excuses offered up in its observations of this young Queer lads’ hard life, but deep in the belly of Ronsons Whale we are offered the redemption of hope and the story takes us by the hand and pulls us up and out of the abyss.

Dear Reader, it’s been a while since I’ve been left so raw by a book . The Whale Tattoo made it to my permanent book shelf, and sits there now whispering to me, telling me the water is warmer than it looks, pop a pebble in my pocket, that we all drown in the end, some in water, some in tears and a few brave souls in narratives, for without love, what is there?

Out now £9:99

For more info or to order the whale tattoo see the publisher’s website here: