Sunday, 9 June 2013

White Dolphin, by Gill Lewis

I am very impressed by White Dolphin. For some reason – and I’m honestly not sure why – I was expecting an average tale of frustrated childhood made right by saving wildlife via clunky writing. What I found was a deftly crafted and real story that encompassed a whole lot of different issues, yet presented in a simple and straightforward style that simultaneously respected every character whilst summoning on the page the intricate and intertwined feelings of childhood and growing up.

Kara is angry, and she has every right to be. All the things she holds close to her heart are in the process of being ripped away. Kara lives by the sea, in a small fishing town in Cornwall, though she also lives by the sea in another sense too – the ocean, the tides, and the marine life beneath the waves are a part of who she is. But it all seems to be disappearing before her eyes: not only will the lifting of a dredging ban destroy this hidden world, but her father must sell their boat, Moana, one of the last things Kara has to connect her to her disintegrating family life. And when she finds a young dolphin beached on the shore, fishing wire wound around its mouth, it only adds to her devastation and frustration with the world. Will the white dolphin help knit back together this divided community, or will all that she represents tear it further apart?

There is so much going on this book it could be overwhelming, but while each of these ‘issues’ are important and have a role to play, author Gill Lewis doesn’t give them loose rein. Rather, they take their place within the story, balancing it out in much the same way that all of these things are ever-present in everyday life. This, I think (along with her natural, free-flowing writing style), is what makes White Dolphin feel so real.

As well as the obvious environmental issues and the debate over fishing sustainability – the balance of livelihood against environmental protection – there is small-town politics, grief, disability, and social concerns. One of the most impressive things for me, though, is the way in which Lewis confronts disability. Kara has dyslexia and her new friend Felix has cerebral palsy, yet both of these things are simply incidental to the story. I really like that while these characters each have a disability this is not a book about overcoming it, or being a champion despite it. It is simply incidental – and that is the best thing ever, because I think that is how disability should be viewed (and represented in literature, movies etc): as incidental. For us to tackle any inequalities around disability, it has to be shown that it really doesn’t matter – and one of the best ways of doing that is to not make a thing out of it, which is exactly what Lewis does. The differently abled-ness is there, but it doesn’t have any impact at all on the greater storyline.

Secondly, I really like how Lewis deals with the storyline around Kara’s mother. It would have been really easy for her to write in some miracle solution, some stroke of luck, but she doesn’t. Instead it is tentatively resolved in a real-world way. Because in White Dolphin the characters make their own luck; change comes about because they do what is necessary to make it happen rather than relying on some benevolent external force to look kindly upon them.

I picked up White Dolphin because of its Cornish setting – the county where I live and work – and Lewis, on top of everything else, brings this place to life as successfully as she does everything else, from the sounds and scents of the sea to the social difficulties of towns and villages which are divided by the gap between both the wealthy tourists/retirees and the low in-county wages, as well as the clash between environmental and business needs. While it could be said that much of this might be incidental to the book’s target audience of 9 to 12 year olds, what it does do is softly introduce such intricacies to them whilst creating a story that feels very real and whole. Plus, of course, it’s a great ride – action, debate, friendship - and everything is tied up in a most satisfying manner at the end. Brilliant.

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