Set in New South Wales, on the east coast of Australia, British writer Jojo Moyes’ novel “Silver Bay” is, at its core, a love story. But clearly the author has done exhaustive research on the subject of whales, information that dominates the opening sections of the book.
We learn, for example, that “a whale’s size gives a misleading impression of its robustness. In reality it is as easy to lose the life of this vast creature as it is to lose that of a fairground goldfish.”
And that “a [humpback] whale’s lungs are the size of a small car … a newborn calf can weigh up to one and a half tons.”
Perhaps some readers will think Moyes has included too much whale information. The novel, however, has its strong points, chief among them the use of characters as narrators, a technique that not only lends a compelling immediacy to the plot but also illustrates how characters often perceive the same event differently.
Chief narrator Kathleen Mostyn, who is 76, owns the rundown, eight-room Silver Bay Hotel. She sets the novel in motion by introducing herself and revealing “when I was 17 I became famous for catching the biggest shark New South Wales had ever seen: a gray nurse with an eye so mean it still looked like it wanted to rip me in two several days after we’d laid it out.”
Another narrator is 34-year-old Mike Dormer, a successful partner at a London firm specializing in the development of luxury foreign-holiday resorts. Mike spends weeks at Kathleen’s hotel scouting the area for land to develop. At first he is bent on selling to the community his 130-million-pound hotel development. Area residents and plot developments, however, soon convince him of the danger such a project would entail for ocean life, particularly the whale and dolphin populations.
During his stay in Silver Bay, Mike becomes acquainted with an 11-year-old girl named Hannah, who is Kathleen’s grandniece. And he comes to know Hannah’s mother Liza, the intrepid skipper of the whaleboat Ishmael. Moyes describes Liza: “a still-beautiful woman, who was both older and younger than her 32 years, her hair scraped back as if she had long since stopped caring what she looked like.”
When Liza and Mike begin to interact, the plot catches fire.
In one of Liza’s narrations she refers to the death of her daughter Letty at age 4, a child one year younger than Hannah. Moyes skillfully succeeds in holding reader interest with this plot twist and, indeed — despite the slow start — with her novel as a whole.
Katherine Bailey also reviews for the Philadelphia Inquirer. She lives in Bloomington. Visit her at katherinebaileyonbooks.com.