I know that a book is extraordinary when I finish it and feel changed in some way. I’m never sure what has happened, but there’s a tiny, imperceptible change, to the air around me, how I feel and even the way I perceive the world. The Stranding left me feeling calm, thoughtful and as if a lot of the small things worrying me didn’t really matter in the big scheme of things. I cared deeply for the characters and their grief, and strangely proud of them for what they managed to achieve. The author created an incredible sense of New Zealand and the whale that becomes Ruth’s saviour, and mother – birthing her and Nik into their new world and sustaining them. Her detailed descriptions left me fully immersed in this world, so much so that when I finished reading, it took a while to adjust back to being in Ruth’s ‘before’ and my 21st Century world.
Ruth is an endearing character and someone I could relate to enormously, especially when thinking back to my younger self. She makes mistakes and doesn’t fully know herself yet. She’s a primary school teacher and serial monogamist living in London. She has a best friend called Fran and really supportive parents who live a train journey away. However, her love life is complicated with even Fran saying that she needs to spend some time alone between relationships. So, Ruth has kept her current relationship under wraps. She loves Alex, and she’s sure the way she feels is different from her previous relationships, but he comes with complications. He’s married, with two small children. There’s a restlessness about Ruth, something she thinks will disappear if Alex makes a commitment. Then he does and he’s there in her small flat all the time, she’s a ready made step mum and as time goes on, she wonders whether she really wants this version of her life? She struggles to cope with someone so physically close to her, sharing her space.
‘Ruth had noticed a new loo brush beside the toilet. She reddened to realise that Alex had felt the necessity to purchase such an item, and her cheeks burnt even more when she wondered whether it was her or him who had made that requirement apparent. It wasn’t the only scatological matter that raised the colour in Ruth’s cheeks. Alex was opposed to the use of any chemical or aerosol-propelled household products. Over the past week, on several occasions, Ruth had found herself wafting pungent air out of the window and running the tap to foam soap in the hope of masking the smell of her natural functions. Though it was worse when she had walked in and been greeted with air almost warm with the memory of Alex’s recent visit’.
The book is split into before and after – it’s not explicit exactly what has created this apocalyptic world Ruth eventually finds herself in, but it is catastrophic, wiping out Europe before it reaches where she has travelled in New Zealand. The placement of these sections is incredibly clever. Before takes us back to the world as we know it and follows Ruth to the beach and the stranded whale. After starts at the stranded whale and tells the story into the future. So we are brought full circle and can marvel at the change in Ruth and discover whether she has finally found satisfaction in a life stripped of everything. Nik is, quite literally, the last man on earth. The difference in their characters is shown in the way they cope with the stranded whale. Ruth is immediately desperate to do something. To do anything. She rips through her rucksack for a container to hold water, then pours it over the huge creature. She must know rationally that this tiny amount of water will make no difference. She has been interested in whales since being a small girl so she must know this is a losing battle, but the activity is not for the whale. Ruth chooses activity because she can’t accept the inevitable. Nik is straightforward. He reminds her that her efforts are futile. They can’t save the whale, all they can do is be there in it’s final moments. They are forced into an intimacy that Ruth would normally avoid. Every day they choose to be a team, to use their individual skills to support each other and stay alive. Her father once advised her that love, real lasting love, is quiet and surprising. It’s not Anna Karenina or Wuthering Heights. It’s not drama and heartbreak and flowery exclamations. He tells her that it’s just going about your day and having a realisation that you can’t live without the other person. There’s telling someone you love them, and there’s showing them.
I loved how the author emphasised the importance of stories in the afterward sections. She realises that children in this new world will never know what it was truly like to live in the before. This wild world of survival is their normal. She tells them stories of how she survived the end of the world. She knows they will never know her joy of reading and she thinks of all the children’s classics she could be reading to them:
‘She watches Frankie exploring every stone and shell she comes across and feels a physical ache in her heart that she will never read a book: the words that constructed the worlds Ruth’s imagination inhabited as a child. Instead Ruth tells her those stories herself. She tells her of the Lion and the Witch that lived through the Wardrobe, and great adventures of princesses and princes. Without the books to restrict her, she often switches the genders of the protagonists, waking sleeping princes from their slumbers and sending young women on adventures in mythical lands. Nik watches as Ruth talks softly to the child on her lap in the light of the fire, retelling the stories they know so well; he raises an eyebrow and forms his crooked smile as he hears her adaptations.’
This is a return to oral storytelling, where the story can change according to the storyteller. I also loved Ruth’s changing of the narratives, creating a more feminist type of fairy tale and shaping girls to be powerful, confident and be the ones doing the rescuing.
I was blown away by the author’s own storytelling, from the beautiful and detailed, such as her incredible description of the skin of the whale.
‘The hide of the animal looks like cracked, varnished wood. Like an old piano. A giant grand piano from the ballroom of a wrecked ocean-liner, washed up on the shore. The long white underside of its belly is ridged, like bricks of pale plasticine. The shell-like white, beige, cream skin is flecked with grey, black, coral-orange markings. Around its mouth and eyes the same orange spreads like rust: clumsy make-up that has smudged in the water.’
Yet, it can also be brutal, such as when she’s describing Ruth’s skin in the first few days afterwards. It made me think about the extremes of the world she’s living in, from the quietness and the gradual return of nature to the brutality of the wild dogs and the animalistic aspects of birth. What I was left with though, was something I’ve been thinking about during the pandemic where I’ve been shielding – only seeing my partner and step-daughters. With the pause button pressed on my life, I was able to think about it more clearly. I realised we needed to move house and we are now out in the country, with a garden I can sit in easily and chat to the neighbours over the fence. It made me realise who was important in my life and who wasn’t. I re-evaluated what I wanted to do with my time and decided that now is my time to write. It also made me realise who I am, without people to bounce off, or rushing to different places, or having endless mental stimulation through social media. I was able to apply something I have previously taught in art and writing therapy workshops – the art of being myself. This is Ruth’s journey. With everything removed from her, who exactly is she? There is a time in her life where she would avoid self-examination by jumping to the next thing, the next entertainment, scrolling social media, the next outing, the next man. Afterwards, she is forced to contemplate and to be with the only other person who survived. It is fascinating to watch whether she copes in this situation and whether she can find a way to be happy that eluded her before. This book was incredible, moving, disturbing and deeply philosophical. This is an extraordinary debut and I loved it.
The Stranding is published by Coronet on 24th June 2021