The Whale Tattoo
by Jon Ransom
This title was previously available on NetGalley and is now archived.
Send NetGalley books directly to your Kindle or Kindle app
To read on a Kindle or Kindle app, please add firstname.lastname@example.org as an approved email address to receive files in your Amazon account. Click here for step-by-step instructions.
Also find your Kindle email address within your Amazon account, and enter it here.
Pub Date 04 Feb 2022 | Archive Date 30 Jun 2022
‘The Whale Tattoo’ is a stunning achievement - one of the most impressive and assured debuts I’ve ever read’ Matt Cain
'A bold, brilliant and beautiful debut" Susannah Dunn
Cruelly beautiful, utterly authentic – introducing a searingly talented new Queer writer.
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. Joe turns to his sister, Birdee, the only person who has ever listened. But she can't help him, she drowned two years ago. Then there’s Tim Fysh, local fisherman and long-time lover. But reviving their bond is bound to be trouble.
As the water settles and Joe learns the truth about the river, he finds that we all have the capability to hate, and that we can all make the choice not to.
Ransom’s fractured, distinctive prose highlights the beauty and brutality of his story, his extraordinarily vivid sense of place saturates the reader with the wet of the river, and the salty tang of the sea
A Note From the Publisher
Jon Ransom was a mentee on the 2019 Escalator Talent Development scheme at the National Centre for Writing. In 2021 he was awarded a grant by Arts Council England to develop his creative practice. Ransom’s short stories have appeared in Foglifter Journal, SAND Journal and FIVE:2:ONE and Queer Life, Queer Love (Nov 21) amongst others
‘The Whale Tattoo’ is a stunning achievement - one of the most impressive and assured debuts I’ve ever read'. Matt Cain
‘A powerful new voice of gay working-class life…This eloquent heart-felt debut pulls the reader right besde him, and announces Ransom as a writer of real talent.’ Guardian
'A bold, brilliant and beautiful debut" Susannah Dunn
‘With assured narrative, a vivid sense of place and atmosphere, and flint-sharp dialogue, Jon Ransom has written a novel that is bleak and brutal, but never sentimental.. utterly authentic and cruelly beautiful’ Matt Bates
‘ Raw, uncompromising, and authentic, a remarkable debut from an astonishingly gifted writer' Golnoosh Nour
‘If you only read one debut novel this year make it this one. The Whale Tattoo is a book of visceral, magnetic raw pulsating beauty. A mesmeric, gritty tour de force. We haven’t read a novel this brilliant since Swimming in the Dark by Tomasz Jedrowski. This book is the reason that people love to read.’ Attitude Magazine
‘It’s a fine work of queer literature’. Damian Barr’s Literary Salon
‘An astonishing book. Jon Ransom’s writing manages to be simultaneiously brutal and violent as well as poetic and moving. The quality of his prose if mesmerising’ Linda Jill, Linda’s Book Bag
‘This guy is an incredible new talent. A short book that punches well above its weight: explicit, brutal and moving’. Isabel Costello
‘An astounding debut by an important new voice in queer literature with a completely unique sense of language. Simply a triumph’ 5 *****’. Love Reading, Thomas Schwentenwien.
‘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 dreamy that leaves the reader entranced’. Neil Czeszejko. The Most Anticipated Books of 2022, Delphic Reviews
‘Jon Ransom’s debut novel, The Whale Tattoo, is filled with prose that picks you up in its wake and takes you on a journey. Complex, fraught and violent, The Whale Tattoo reads like an early Tracy Lett’s play – a steaming mix of blue-collar rage and menace’. The Queer Review
‘Seldom, outside the realms of gay royalty like Alan Hollinghurst, have I read a novel about gay people so well written. I can’t recall the last time I read a novel with such a sense of place. This is a story that lives on long after the last full stop. And deserves to be read’. Charles Coussens.
‘I can strongly recommend The Whale Tattoo…I cannot recall when a book – especially one from a first-time author – had such an effect on me’ Rob Harkavy, Out News Global
‘This book felt reminiscent of something like a Max Porter or an Andrew Michael Hurley, at the same time shot through with shades of Douglas Stuart. Waste-landscapes and dead-eyed people drinking their lives away in fetid squalor. And yet, there remains the capacity for love (although unnamed, unvoiced), as well as the dogged resistance against the pull of nihilism’. Luke Murphy. Bookseller
Festival and Bookshop events
Massive Social Media campaign
Review coverage guaranteed
Literary prizes guaranteed
Festival and Bookshop events
Massive Social Media campaign
Review coverage guaranteed
Literary prizes guaranteed
Average rating from 31 members
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 his awareness 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 passions, 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 into the reader with no preamble.
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 sinking deep 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, there’s a distinct stillness in Ransom’s prose. Much like the surface of the river that keeps mocking the protagonist, there’s an ominous spirit 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 choking 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 Whale Tattoo" is both a dream and a nightmare, both a pursuit of objectivity and an escape from the claws of morality. None of the story’s elements can be called gratuitous, none can turn the reader away from its pages.
That’s because, despite its glide through time and feeling, 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.
An astounding debut by an important new voice in queer literature with an completely unique sense of language. Simply a triumph!
Joe Gunner and the river that keeps mocking him, the death that follows him around and the fragility of everything he holds dear in this book broke my heart as much as it had me glued to each page.
Thanks Netgalley for the eARC.
It took me a while to read The Whale Tattoo by Jon Ransom. This is the kind of book that I like to take my time with, and I did that.
Joe left his family for a couple of years. The events that sparked that are revealed slowly throughout the novel. His constant companion is the river... the water whispering truths and lies to him, drawing him closer and giving him a constant sense of doom. It all began with a dead whale on the shore and things have been slipping from Joe's control ever since.
Ransom's writing style is unusual; staccato, shocking at times, and authentic. I found this novel to be engaging and heart-breaking and, in some ways, that makes it difficult for me to describe it in a review. As dark as some of the subject matter is, I found the novel to be beautiful. Part of its beauty is in the unique writing style of Ransom. I can honestly say that I've never read anything quite like it and I have read a lot of books over the years.
Joe made my heart hurt. He experiences love, loss, tragedy and everything in between on the pages of this book. His head is a comfortable and sad place to spend some time, but I don't regret it at all. This wasn't a book that I was relieved to finish, in fact, I wanted to keep reading once I had reached the end.
If you enjoy unusual fiction then you will probably enjoy this story.
I normally try to stay away from books like this. I find they pull me in, that I end up devouring them in one go while my head whirrs like an overclocked computer. This was no different. The prose is dreamlike — or, rather, nightmarish — drifting between the present and memories with an undulating, unpredictable flow. You're left unmoored, on unstable ground, just like the characters within. This book felt reminiscent of something like a Max Porter or an Andrew Michael Hurley — at the same time shot through with shades of Douglas Stuart. Waste-landscapes and dead-eyed people drinking their lives away in fetid squalor. And yet, there remains the capacity for love (although unnamed, unvoiced), as well as the dogged resistance against the pull of nihilism
This is a really weird book about and being a teenager and trying to grow up and being gay and about how maybe you are cursed forever, possibly by a whale. It’s magical realism and feels dreamlike to read. Big themes of water, grief, love, the pull of the deep. 4.25 stars.
An amazing debut novel! Our MC Joe believes that death follows him and that the river speaks to him. Through vivid dreamscapes and backstories, Joe's story emerges as one of love, lust, and loss, and a personal journey that ultimately leads to the path of acceptance and redemption. I'm already looking forward to Jon Ransom's future works!
This guy is an incredible new talent. A short book that punches well above its weight: explicit, brutal and moving.
This is a unique, haunting queer coming-of-age story. The writing is jagged, somehow pleasingly, but there's an awful sense of unsafety, of shifting ground beneath your feet. Unforgettable characters abound, and Ransom achieves an incredible sense of place while keeping you in the dark in terms of where it actually is. Joe's locale is vivid but unimaginable, like nowhere you know. I liked it a lot.
My thanks to Muswell Press and NetGalley for the ARC.
JON RANSOM – THE WHALE TATTOO *****
I read this novel in advance of publication through NetGalley in return for an honest review.
Seldom, outside the realms of gay royalty like Alan Hollinghurst, have I read a novel about gay people so well written. Right from the start there is crudeness and a constant barrage of swearing from the first-person narrator – totally justified in my opinion, and I am someone who doesn’t swear. Joe is crude, with his smoking and drinking and rough way of speaking but is the most rounded and believable character I have read in a long time.
Though this is Joe’s story, of the father he loathes, the sister he loves, it is mainly about his life-long gay relationship with a fisherman, Fysh and him coming to terms with the suicide of his mother.
I can’t recall the last time I read a novel with such a sense of place. Joe talks to the water, and the water answers, but the prose is filled with descriptions of the salt marshes and the dykes, the river and the sea, and the trawlers bringing home the shellfish catch. Everything about the prose is visceral. You breathe the salt air, hear the slap of water against the banks, smell the oil and petrol and the choking diesel fumes. See the litter and the broken-down buildings, the listing boats, the mirror reflections of the sky.
This is a story that lives on long after the last full stop. And deserves to be read.
This was an incredibly immersive and compelling read, that was at times dizzying, often heartbreaking, and with just enough hopefulness to keep my head above water.
The narrative voice was what grabbed me the most, from start to finish, and it was what made the book stand out for me. The use of such a close first person narrator, within a timeline that skipped back and forth with little warning or explanation, meant that I felt thrust inside this world that told of pain and hurt, and yet somehow also of the various types of love and care.
These timeline jumps and disjointed narration did require some adjustment, and for me, hovered around the line between reader absorption and confusion, usually ending on the right side. (I should add that this may be in part due to the formatting issues in my review copy, which often made the writing more fractured than intended).
The book felt heavily grounded in a particular part of England, and that was another plus for me, but at the same time it called to an almost separate dreamlike existence, with the interplay and balance between the two changing throughout, and giving the ending a kind of satisfaction that I had earlier doubted it could reach.
This was a book that would not leave me once I finished. Flawed and compelling.
'The Whale Tattoo' is a book that takes off at a breakneck pace and delves deep into the specifics of how we hurt and affect those that we love most, as well as the scars left behind by love.
The narrator of the story has returned to his hometown to reunite with his lover, Fysh, and his family, torn asunder by dysfunction and tragedy. The story assumes a non linear structure, almost like throwing broken pieces on the ground and arranging them into a collage, an epic of loss and ultimately hope.
The exploration of the main character and his relationship with Fysh (his lover) is almost too painful to bear as the novel unfolds. As time goes on and we learn more about them, the characters gain more complexity giving the story a rich texture. This too goes for Fysh's wife Dora, the narrators dad, as well as his late mother and his sister.
The prose in particular is spare in places, but the author uses language beautifully. Not a word is wasted and the narration reflects the dialogue where the characters converse in clipped tones. There were times where I worried that too much was being held back and I was going to be left at the end with more questions than answers, but to the best of my recollection, I don't think anything was left unanswered. This was a particular concern with the imagery around water and the eponymous whale tattoo, but this all makes sense. Trust the process!
This book is sexually explicit and quite graphically violent in places, but if you have the stomach, I'd say give it a read. Can't wait to see what Jon Ransom does next!
Book Review: The Whale Tattoo by Jon Ransom ★★★★1/2
Jon Ransom’s debut novel, The Whale Tattoo, is filled with prose that picks you up in its wake and takes you on a journey. Complex, fraught and violent, The Whale Tattoo reads like an early Tracy Lett’s play – a steaming mix of blue-collar rage and menace.
Joe Gunner is working in a chip shop when a sperm whale washes up on the local beach, whispering frightening portents into Joe’s ear. When Joe returns to his hometown, a fishing village by the river, he faces his past and the repercussions of the life he fled two years ago. When he meets up with his ex-lover, Tim Fysh, events spiral as Joe is caught between Tim’s aggressive brother Doug, Tim’s pregnant wife Dora and his own homophobic father. Meanwhile the whale won’t stop haunting him.
Where does anger go? Suppressed or not, anger infuses the text; Joe’s anger at those around him, at himself, at his sexuality. He grew up in a world of angry young men and it’s through that haze he sees events around him. Sexual trysts are quick and hidden, his lack of connection is palpable. Joe’s disregard for his own wellbeing fills each scene, from simple things like instantly getting his clothes dirty, to pushing genuine people away and putting himself in dangerous situations. He is a man in crisis who can’t admit it to himself, and he’s not alone. Everyone around him is filled with anger. His father is cold and dismissive. Dora wants recompense for Joe’s affair with her husband. Doug threatens to kill him if he goes near Fysh again. Even in death, characters get no peace.
Ransom’s text bleeds between events and memories giving Joe an uneasy, distracted air. His emotions get the best of him and he gets lost in the past when the present gets overwhelming. It’s a gripping read, unpredictable but emotionally coherent. Joe and Dora’s interactions spark with unspoken knowledge and emotions. The prose, like Joe’s mind, slides between events, always inhabiting an insecure, liminal space. It manages to be both blunt and poetic all at once.
The great strength here is Ransom’s pacing. Joe’s life unfolds in an ever-enlightening roll of revelations. Neatly balancing the forward momentum of the story and the piece-by-piece exploration of a man who barely knows himself, The Whale Tattoo places you inside Joe’s mind and the turmoil therein. It’s a tough act, making us inhabit Joe’s headspace without making him unlikable, despite doing a number of unlikable things. Joe is broken and impulsive but there is a core of nobility in him. The theme of unexpected ‘found family’ and self-acceptance reminded me strongly of Michael Cunningham’s A Home at the End of the World.
Thankfully, and unlike so many queer novels, this isn’t a book of “misery porn”. Joe’s life takes horrid turns but the reader never loses sight of the potential for growth, making The Whale Tattoo a surprisingly enjoyable and cathartic read.
The Whale Tattoo by Jon Ransom is published by Muswell Press on February 3rd 2022. Thanks to Netgalley for an advance review copy.
What an incredible debut. This book teetered on the edge of too much for me a lot. It threatened to completely overwhelm me, so much so that I had to take breaks. But it's worth it. The writing is absolutely stunning, the story desperate and agonising. I felt so much for the people in this. I feel haunted by their tragedies even still and it left me almost breathless at times. Just absolutely brilliant all round, sometimes a punishing read but one I can easily recommend.
I received an eARC of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
I loved the way this book was written—a rich character study that ingrained itself deeply within the protagonist's mind. The sex was written fascinatingly. I wish that the plot had felt more consequential to the story itself. On the whole, a rewarding story.
This story scoops you up and carries you along like a roaring river right from the first page. It’s somehow simultaneously sluggish and desperately paced, truly reflecting Joe (and several of those around him) — emotionally resigned to this life of struggling, but with a bitter hope of more pulsing through nonetheless. I found the non-linear structure and language both to be particularly compelling, working together to settle me right into Joe’s headspace throughout.
It’s 4 stars rather than 5 because I didn’t quite feel enough connection to the characters or the story to get lost in it, which is my personal mark of a top tier read. But it was still a striking read with some real moments of beauty scattered throughout.
Dark, atmospheric, absorbing. I picked up this one and couldn't put it down until I'd finished it. Delving deep in the psyche of the main character Joe, who is trapped in a small seaside town, queer and tormented by death. The book convincingly portrays the claustrophobia of an English small town, especially where you grow up queer and people live hard lives. With numerous scenes of graphic sex this is a very descriptive novel, where the inky black water and sky really come alive in the writing. An astonishing debut novel.
With thanks to Netgalley and the publisher for an ARC in exchange for an honest review.
Thank you, Muswell Press, for allowing me to read The Whale Tattoo early.
I loved the lyrical writing, but I liked the overall story less. If you adore unique books, you should definitely check this one out. I couldn’t connect to the characters as much as I wanted, and I found the sex scenes rather graphic
Readers who liked this book also liked:
Bret Easton Ellis
Gracy (Author), Fathima E.V. (Translator)