Book Review: Leviathan or, The Whale by Philip Hoare

Grace WrightGrace Wright, a BPTC student at BPP, was the runner-up in our 2015 Student Essay Competition. In this blog post she reviews Philip Hoare’s book, “Leviathan or, The Whale”.

An eclectic blend of autobiography, travelogue, nature essay, social history and literary critique, Philip Hoare’s Leviathan is as enigmatic as the whale itself. Hoare weaves the numerous narrative threads together with expert literary craft to produce a truly beautiful book – a lone whale-lover’s heartfelt apology to the creatures that we have hunted, captured and killed over the centuries.

Hoare does not fight to capture the whale for his readers in the space of 418 pages – he accepts from the outset that the creature remains a mystery to him. Instead, Hoare uses his blended text to leave the whale free to tell its own story. Whilst he self-consciously accepts that he is prone to over-anthropomorphising the whale, Hoare’s unique way of writing is a fitting vehicle through which to tell of man’s chequered history with whales.

Hoare charts our changing perception of whales from old lore to twenty-first century conservationism. We move from whales as ancient beasts of the deep capable of swallowing a man whole (‘leviathan’ comes from the Greek ‘ketos’ meaning sea monster) to 18th century Nantucket where the whaling business is booming and harpooneers recount tales of epic battles with gargantuan sperm whales, bringing home precious pearly oil from the heads of bloodied carcasses spanning the ship’s deck.

Literary biography is interspersed with biology as Hoare considers Herman Melville’s own musings on the whale in his great novel Moby Dick alongside the functioning of the baleen and how whales use sound. Hoare also charts his own experiences with whales, beginning as small boy unable to fully understand the plight of Ramu the performing Orca at the now defunct Windsor Safari Park to a breath-taking account of a man who used to be frightened of water swimming with sperm whales off the coast of the Azores.

Winner of the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction (2009), this is a fascinating and often moving account of man’s transforming relationship with the whale which will stay with you long after you turn the last page.

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