More than an earful

<strong>Inside the Whale</strong>

Jennie Rooney

<em>Chatto & Windus, 262pp, £12.99</em>

Chances are that one can get through this life without knowing the best way of effecting an escape if swallowed by a whale. Any reader of Jennie Rooney's first novel is, however, sure to have it indelibly fixed in the mind that "according to the latest scientific research, swallowees who have been fully devoured ought to try to cling to the front of the tongue and hope for a fortuitous gap in the teeth".

No seafaring tale, this novel is the work of a singularly outlandish and compassionate imagination. That whaling observation owes nothing to a deck lashed by Atlantic waves but is the answer given to one of the narrators by a librarian "sporting purple pyjama trousers and a headdress of dirty blonde dreadlocks that got trapped in books when she shut them too abruptly". Such is one of the many truculent views of the contemporary world made by recently widowed Stephanie Sandford (Stevie) who looks back on her life in chapters that zigzag through time while alternating with those by Michael Royston as he contends with the cancer that has left him unable to speak.

It gives nothing away to say that the two narrators were separated by the Second World War and that they share a child brought up by another man. Will they meet again? That, put simply, is the narrative thrust, but its real delight is the continual ability - the mark of a born novelist - to conjure up scenes that linger in the mind far longer than they did on the page. The book teems with people, briefly met, but never feels crowded. Perhaps Stevie's misfortunes began before conception: her mother married a man called Reg, apparently praised in letters from her brother Jack before his death in the Great War, but only at the wedding reception did her mother meet among the guests another Reg: the one her brother had meant. "She . . . went back to join her husband and the dancing, her smile shining only a little dimmer on her lips than it had done before the trifle was served."

Later, typical of the novel's way with curious facts and offbeat comment, comes Michael's remark to Stevie that people queued to watch the American astronomer Edwin Powell Hubble at work, and "a girl called Mary had fallen in love with him as she stood on tiptoes, craning over another man's shoulder to see, and Hubble had spotted her and married her". As for Stevie and Michael, their life in pre-war suburbia - she in the canteen at a peanut factory, he at a dairy - is splendidly evoked, lidos, bike rides, fumbles and all, as is the Africa to which Michael is sent, where he works with the Morse code that resurfaces decades later in the ward. Meanwhile, Kikuyu boys "would cheer encouragingly as we spoke to them in our stilted and biblical Swahili, and they would argue among themselves about what we had been trying to say".

Events in Africa take a hideous turn, from which Michael finds some recovery in two years' service with homing pigeons, one of whom, heartbreakingly, wins the Dicken Medal for heroism. All of which, had she learned about it, might have put Stevie's lifelong toothbrush rage in some perspective ("I can't bear splayed bristles clogged with dried toothpaste. It makes me nauseous to hear the hawkings and swillings of others, to watch the white froth gathering and bubbling over their tongues").

Whether a matter of Regs, pigeons, or Swahili, Morse and much more, Inside the Whale is a novel about communication for ever interrupted, misunderstood, by those trapped in life's whale.

What the doctors don't tell you is this. The human ear is not an expansive organ. It allows us only a sliver of the full acoustic spectrum. What sounds like the deepest silence is in fact a cacophony of sound, a melee of screaming meteors, of roaring drizzle and howling clouds, accompanied by an incessant low hum coming from the centre of the earth. And they don't mention that the sounds we do hear are nothing more than fast-decaying vibrations of material that lose energy almost immediately, fading away while we try desperately to rearrange the vibrations into something more meaningful.

Kamikaze raids descend and concentration-camp gas hisses beyond auditory range, while connoisseurs of irony, in which Inside the Whale abounds, must relish all the more mute Michael's later aural reflection: some silence is "clean and deliberate. It's a different sort of silence from the one that bounces around a nearly empty room when the radio is on, muffled only slightly by the illusion of company provided by Radio 4. The Afternoon Play, The Archers, Gardeners' Question Time. That's a different sort of silence altogether."

That station took this in its stride, recently broadcasting several extracts, and the novel has one shouting its praises to anybody who is within earshot.