Review: Moby Doll by Saara Henriksson

INTO, 2011

Disclaimer: This book has, unfortunately, not been translated into English. Thus all the excerpts here have been translated by yours truly.

Music is time: the journey from one note to another. A young piano student, Jenny, is searching for a melody she heard as a child, and her search leads her to the Arctic Ocean and to whales. She is followed by Jokke, a civil servant and retired activist, with whom Jenny had a summer romance years ago. They are aided in their mutual search by Hope, a marine biologist studying the language of whales.

Moby Doll is a story about reaching for the target that is out of reach, but also about the possibilities of communication and the power of music. Jenny hopes to find from the whales singing an answer to an age-old question. It is also the story of humans and whales throughout centuries.

My first instinct in picking up this book was the allusion to Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, a classic that I read during the summer. The subtitle of the book – A Novel where Man searches for a woman and Woman for a whale – supported that argument, and having now read both books, there are a lot of thematic similarities between the two. However, the name also alludes to one of the first wild killer whales captured by humans, named Moby Doll.

The story of Moby Doll begins with the main character, Jenny, struggling to find inspiration for her final graduation project. She feels tired of her life in Helsinki, and feels drawn to the old whale documentaries that she used to watch as a child. She remembers having once heard the whales sing and memorized the song, but the melody escapes her. In a spur of a moment, she decides to contact Hope, who studies whales in the Arctic Ocean. Around the same time, the other main character, Jokke, walks into his boring daily job at the Ministry of the Environment. He has been lately feeling down about his career and questioning the choices that he has made during the years. The memory of Jenny resurfaces, and he decides to contact her. Jenny tells him that she is traveling to Norway, and Jokke decides to follow her in hopes of rekindling their relationship and finding himself.

The book also has a side story about Hope, the promising whale researcher stuck in a small fishing village; about a group of protesters; and about whale hunting. For such a short book, Moby Doll manages to tie in many themes and issues, from climate change to relationship problems. It also has a lot of data about whales woven into the dialogues and narrations. The narration switches between the main characters, but there are also chapters narrated by the magical old wise whale, who talks about his experiences from bellow the surface. The writing of Moby Doll is creative and beautiful, moving like water and singing like music. Some of the parts were slower and some moments felt overly stretched, but towards the end the action picked up again and I couldn’t put the book down.

Moby Doll raises several questions about the our relationship to nature and how humans have mistreated their power over animals. Like Moby-Dick, there’s a lot of facts about whales and whale hunting, but more from the perspective of protecting the species. I especially enjoyed the parts that dealt with whales and their language, and would have loved to read more about it. I’d recommend Moby Doll both to people who have read Moby-Dick and to people who are too intimidated to pick it up.


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