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The Sooterkin by Tom Gilling

April 11, 2012

One day, my friend Tim told me I should check out the book he was reading with his book club. When I asked him what it was about, he said, “A woman gives birth to a seal.” I was in.

“Pardon the stench. You have hardly turned a page and a blast of putrid air has pricked your nostrils.” This is the way we are introduced to Hobart Town, which seems to be a British colony on an island in the South Pacific. Whether it was established as a penal colony is unclear, but a great proportion of the citizens in this whaling town are criminals and released prisoners. Most of the rest just have a warped sense of morality. The year is 1812.

The seal’s name is Arthur. His mother, Sarah Dyer, is a good, kind woman. His father (though there is quite a bit of speculation, as it’s easier to prove maternity than paternity, particularly when the offspring is a seal pup), is a good-for-nothing drunk. His older brother, Ned, is a well-intentioned but mischievous boy, reminiscent of Huck Finn.

I don’t want to spoil anything by summarizing the plot of this delightful book other than to say that everyone in town has a theory about where Arthur came from, an idea as to what should be done with the seal and, it seems, an ulterior motive. But the real joy is the overall tone of the novel. Part satire, part farce, mostly absurd, it raises questions about religion, science, and what makes us human. But lest that make it sound sound too serious, this is all buried in the muck of of wonderfully despicable crooks, miscreants, scammers and scallywags, with very few brain cells and even fewer good intentions between them. A thoroughly enjoyable book.

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