Review: ‘The Whale Tattoo’ by Jon Ransom

The Whale Tattoo

In The Whale Tattoo, death gains both a voice and a lapping body of its own. Hounded by its murmurs, Joe returns to the home he left two years ago, only to find that memories can scream themselves raw. But death’s grip continues to tighten, leaving Joe risking more than he can bear as he gives in to the power his lover Fysh has always had over him.

Jon Ransom wastes no time in raising a moody stage for the reader to unload all his attention onto. With a foggy quay biting into a marsh, and a river that taunts Joe with its whispers, the story’s setting never stops feeding its ghoulish dealings.

And yet, despite the burden of its desires, the novel is brilliantly fast-paced. Within the first few pages, both Joe’s discomfort and his torturous affection for Fysh are defined with remarkable efficiency, creating a hook that sinks far too deep to ignore.

Above all, The Whale Tattoo stands out for its delectable crudeness of expression. Loss, grief, jealousy, love, and lust are all full-bodied entities battling over space on every page, but the mundanity that houses them leaves little room for sentimentality. Instead, the shock of feeling plays out on the surface, raising hair and skin alike, never slipping far enough to strip the narrative of its haunting visuals.

It’s the decaying flesh of the whale on the beach, the hot vomit strangling its victim, the black river resembling an oil stain as it lures its prey into the dark, along with the rage recognized only in the light of day, that animate the story’s underlying menace. And yet, a sense of fragility prevails. 

That’s because, no matter how unnerving the scene, Ransom’s prose remains still and tranquil. Much like the surface of the river that keeps mocking the protagonist, there’s an ominous tenor behind every word; a beauty that shocks.

And, much like the elusive line between the bank of the river and land, time is a shifting entity within the parameters of the story. There’s no clear distinction between the past and the present, only a rush of sensation.

The body of water it holds penetrates the protagonist’s psyche, floods reality in a way that is both hungry and foreboding. What’s more, every character carries the water’s darkness deep within, every limb appears forged from something indistinct and shapeless. It’s the vagueness of their motives, the troubled honesty with which they navigate their subconscious, that transforms The Whale Tattoo into a breathless enigma.

It keeps pace with the reader, warning of the consequences of its eventual unraveling. Tension keeps ballooning, swelling like a wave until it crests. When it finally splinters at the reader’s feet, its belly reveals the turmoil beneath, the intrigue thickened by roiling passions. 

And so, the novel is both a dream and a nightmare; a pursuit of objectivity and a renunciation of morality. None of the story’s elements can be considered gratuitous, none can turn the reader away from its pages.

That’s because, despite its glide through feeling and time, the novel scratches an itch that few books can reach. It’s Ransom’s raw reflection on life, his recognition of the brutality that transforms moments of passing rapture into something dreary, that leaves the reader entranced.


Publication date: February 4, 2022 (Muswell Press)

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