I was initially reticent to start My Father the Whale by Gina Perry because I’d just read another book (Tell Me What I Am by Una Mannion) about a young girl being raised by her father amidst secrets about her mother’s fate and I was concerned the two books would become intertwined in my little head. As it happens however, they are (ultimately) quite different though similarly themed around family and relationships. Perry’s book is also set in two distinct timeframes: 1984 and then 2000.My Father the Whale
by Gina Perry
Published by HarperCollins
Source: Harper Collins
Genres: General Fiction, Literary Fiction
For nine-year-old Ruby, travelling the country with her charismatic father Mitch and busking for a living is the only life she's ever known. Mitch has been the centre of Ruby's world since she was a baby, and much as she's curious about her mother who died soon after Ruby was born, talk of her is taboo.
When repairs to their ageing Kombi strand them in a small coastal town, Ruby is drawn to the town and its people and gains a glimpse of family life starkly different to her own. But when Mitch is ready to leave, Ruby is caught between her loyalty to her father and the safety of the place that's offered her a taste of normal life, causing a rift between them that will take years to heal.
When Mitch sweeps back in town and into Ruby's adult life, his arrival is like a tidal wave, bringing more questions as Ruby grapples with the legacy of her childhood. For her, the only way forward is to confront the past and the secret of a mother Ruby's never known ... and what Mitch was escaping when he set out for a life on the road.
I enjoy books with child narrators – if done well – and Perry does a good job with Ruby who’s nine years old when we meet her. But old beyond her years. Her father Mitch wears sarongs and harem pants has a long plait and rails against the oppressive system. I suspect he would have been out of place in 1984 which (in many ways) was a time of excess – billionaire hoteliers, yacht races, big hair and power suits with shoulder pads.
Ruby and Mitch are performers and constantly on the move and I felt somewhat nostalgic as they’re in Queensland in the early part of the book and there are references to places I know, including my childhood hometown’s ‘Agricultural Show’.
Indeed, I was quite happy in 1984* so found the shift to 2000 jarring. I had a lot of questions as the second part opened as Perry references characters and events without initially explaining who they are. We eventually loop back to get updated on intervening years but the transition didn’t quite work as well as I would have liked. I missed the ‘coming of age’ bit I guess. Once we’re up to date however, things returned to a more familiar pace. I think perhaps I struggled with the stark difference from 9 year old Ruby to 25 year old Ruby. The leap from innocence to knowing. And possibly Perry is aiming to jolt readers, and remind us how much of who we are is shaped by those around us. Certainly the dichotomy between the hippy father who rode a unicycle and the Mitch who reappears in Ruby’s life is meant to shock and potentially anger Ruby (and we readers) given that he wasn’t able to get his life together when she needed him.
Transition aside, I enjoyed this understated novel and Perry manages to resist the temptation to overplay the family drama and revelation of past secrets that we know is coming.
My Father the Whale by Gina Perry was published in Australia by Harper Collins in early June 2023.
I received a copy of this book from the publishers for review purposes.
* Though not sure that was the case in my actual life!