We open on a boat. Doreen, her small son Max, a borrowed dad and the open sea. There’s a hint of desperation and the titillation of adventure, hunters.
They are following the migration route of the grey whales from the lagoons of Baja California in Mexico to the Arctic Ocean. We quickly realise, however, that Doreen is looking for more than whales. She’s looking to prove to her son that “it is possible to do anything ... just the two of us”. And, secretly, for a whale hunter she loved.
The chapters move between Doreen and Max’s journey with the whales and Doreen’s first visit to Utqiaġvik, where she lived with a local family, turned from vegetarian to snacking on pickled whale and went on a life-threatening hunt for bowheads.
With the rigour and integrity of a climate journalist, Cunningham tells the story not just of the whales, but of the community who have been feeling the effects of the climate crisis for decades. She tells of the media’s complicity in the climate crisis, the oil companies’ campaign of misinformation and challenges the idea of equal platforming for scientists and sceptics.
Ryan Tubridy’s last Late Late: Host brims with emotion as Saoirse Ronan, U2 and Paul McCartney make appearances
‘I miss breakfast rolls and the sense of humour but our life in the US has been as normal as anyone else’s with young kids’
It is how the author weaves an unflinching interrogation of herself into a global context that brings this book into a league of its own.
She reflects on the battle that leads her back to the whales, on the wildness of an island upbringing in Jersey and her strained relationship with her Irish mother. It is impossible to ignore the postcolonial undertones of the author’s heritage and how it influences her relationship with the people of Utqiaġvik.
[ Playing God: A brisk critique of the US Catholic hierarchy for moving sharply to the right ]
It is one such relationship that forms a quiet heartache throughout the book. A romantic love that lingers in the present day as Doreen moves north, closer to Utqiaġvik, and closer to her past.
This book encompasses so much. Yet, it at no point feels dense or cluttered. The voice is confident and the plot as compelling as any novel. It is a human story of resilience, loss and immense bravery.
It becomes not just a book about mother and son, whales, the climate but a book about power and what happens when that power is abused. It is a rallying call for love.