May 2020

by Andrew Fuhrmann

‘Fathoms: The World in the Whale’ by Rebecca Giggs
The Australian writer’s lyrical consideration of our relationship with whales is a new and ambitious kind of nature writing

Among the many memorable whale-related majorae and minutiae collected in this astonishing, desolating, exasperating, utterly original debut by Australian nature writer Rebecca Giggs is her description of the late-19th-century health treatment known as the whale cure. This gruesome therapy, pioneered by a hotel in Eden on the New South Wales coast, involved bathing inside the still-warm carcass of a freshly killed whale.

Describing archival photographs of the treatment in the National Library, Giggs marvels at the violent absurdity of the remedy:

Because the prints are black and white, the bloodied cynosure of the whale is not apparent – yet how its flesh must have sung redly against the green and grey bushland! The women are up to their shoulders in the whale, and still wearing ribboned hats.

What a surreal tableau vivant. And what a vivid evocation, with the dead mass of the whale and the fluttering ribbons.

In the main, Fathoms (Scribe) is an attempt to interpret our contemporary moment – and in particular our relationship with the non-human world – through the glistening figure of the whale in all its myriad aspects. Giggs comments on magazine reports about the latest whale research. She deconstructs the various uses of whale imagery in mass and social media. And she sketches a history of the economic exploitation of whales and the movement to protect them.

She is interested in the ways we have transformed whale habitats and impacted their physiology and behaviour, but she is also interested in the way these changes have registered – or failed to register – in the popular imagination. Do the stories we tell about whales align with the reality of what it is to be a whale in the 21st century? Giggs believes they do not and argues that we need a whole cetacean mythology.

The language of Fathoms has a remarkable, almost gothic intensity. The style is vivid and estranging and luridly compelling, full of weird lights and unexpected textures. Giggs fondles new and exotic words as if they were precious fossils. She lingers over morbid images and melancholy juxtapositions, and her lyrical fascination with dead and dying whales seems to express an unappeased longing for catastrophe.

It’s a dense book with a heavy inner rhythm and it demands a way of reading that is slow, patient and thorough. At times the accumulation of detail across its 10 chapters induces a vague feeling of claustrophobia, of near suffocation. Or perhaps it’s a kind of seasickness. Images and ideas jostle together, stick and merge into one another, creating long sinewy threads of argument and sensation.

And, yes, occasionally these threads collapse and the author falls into mere gesture and rhetorical cleverness. But Fathoms is nonetheless a remarkable literary event because it is a new and hugely ambitious kind of nature writing, verging on poetry. It is itself a whale cure, thrusting us into the dark intestine of the whale, among the indigestible plastics and other pollutants, the better to hear the conscience of tomorrow.

Andrew Fuhrmann

Andrew Fuhrmann is an editor and literary critic. He is a researcher in the Digital Studio at the University of Melbourne and has taught at the Victorian College of the Arts.

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