Finding Peace in Turbulent Waters: a review of 'The Stranding' by Rachel Fetherston in 'Wild Melbourne' (2017)
Lex Henderson washes up in a small coastal village after tragedy shatters his life in Sydney. He wants to escape and thinks he's found the perfect place to hide, until the locals start taking an interest in him. Despite himself, he is soon drawn into the community in ways he could never had anticipated. He meets Callista Bennett, an artist with a hidden history, and enters into a friendship with her that is volatile and difficult - both of them are paralysed by their pasts and the idea of ever trusting anyone again.
What Lex does learn to trust is the beauty of the world around him, and he embraces it wholeheartedly, swimming out among the whales, and studying the ever-changing patterns of the sea, the play of light and shadow, storm and sunshine. This is one way he can connect with Callista, who has spent her life engaged with the natural world and whose paintings capture it so vividly.
Then a whale is stranded on a nearby beach, and Lex, Callista and the townsfolk become involved in a tense and uncertain rescue. It is through the trials and emotions of this event that Lex and Callista see a way through their grief. But will their pasts let them go?
The Stranding is a beautifully told story of loss and recovery, exile and belonging, and the redemptive power of the natural world.
THE INSPIRATION FOR THE STRANDING
When my daughter was tiny we visited a friend's house on the south coast of NSW for a few days of rest and peace away from the perpetual madness of our family home. The house was in a beautiful quiet and isolated location over looking the sea. I was sitting alone in the lounge room, mulling over an idea for a novel that had been simmering for a few years, when I saw something move out in the bay. It was the pectoral flipper of a humpback whale. The whale was rolling and waving and splashing around not much more than a hundred and fifty metres offshore. I dashed out onto the grassy bank above the sea and watched, full of the ridiculous child-like excitement that seems to accompnany sightings of whales. That afternoon there were whales about every time I looked out the window: sometimes just puffs of vapour as a pod migrated along the coast, sometimes flippers waving and crashing into the sea, sometimes a tail lifted aloft and slapped down with a massive splash.
In my job as a veterinarian, I am confronted daily with death, grief and loss, and these are themes I contemplate often: how deeply we are wounded by loss, how we react to grief and how healing begins. The sighting of those whales affected me so strongly, I began to think about how someone who was ground down by death and loss might be turned around by a spiritual experience in nature. That's when Lex started to take shape in my mind. His house in The Stranding, is of course, the house I stayed in during those few days. I was able to return there several times during the writing of the book to revive my inspiration and to complete various drafts.
During my early days as a vet, I worked in mixed practice in small towns. This served as fodder for the town of Merrigan and its townspeople. I have also been fortunate in my job to work with many different species of Australian native animals, including seals in Antarctica. Sometimes I have been caught up in very diffficult and emotional situations involving the life and death of wild animals. These experiences fed into the crux of The Stranding which examines the ethics of wildlife rescue when a whale is stranded on a local beach.
The Australian (Stella Clarke)
"The Stranding is a moving, edgy love story. The writing is stark, graphic and imbued with a strong physicality. The Stranding is a poignant anatomy of loss. It is a memorable story of broken hearts trying to mend, of personal discovery and recovery. Viggers circles the topical, sentimentalised focus on the vulnerability of whales with enthralling and knowledgeable intent. Her writing creats seductive land-edge experiences, light off the ocean, wind over sand, weather coming in."
The Australian Women's Weekly
"An impressive Australian debut. There's a raw saltiness to the writing that vividly conveys the wild moods of the ocean, the crippling nature of emotional bagge and the challenges of a whale rescue."
"Viggers' voice is measured and assured and she treats her characters emotional journeys with sensitivity."
The Canberra Times (Di Stubbings)
"A tender, heart-warming novel that encompasses love, redemption, and the wonders of nature, The Strandingis bound to garner for Viggers a wide and enthusiastic audience."
Aussie Reviews (Sally Murphy)
'The Stranding is a finely tuned novle of grief and recovery, of confronting the past and moving forward."
"The Stranding brings the characters togehter in an emotionally charged situation that produces unusual rifts and liaisons and an unexpected outcome. Beautifully written, The Stranding is a lyrical heartfelt story about loss, memory and the power of love."
M/C Reviews (Kimberley Allsopp)
"The beauty in the novel comes from the descriptions of the interactions with the whales and descriptions of cliffs and unmanned paths. Lex's manoeuvring of a surfboard into the depths of the sea so he can witness a trio of whales is expertly realised. Viggers has created an effective book for those who enjoy the Australian landscape and the native creatures that call it home.'
DISCUSSION STARTERS FOR BOOKCLUBS
Is death tolerable?
What does it require for those burderned with loss to accept life again?
What are the different ways in which people respond to loss and grief? What factors contribute to recovery?
In the small town of Merrigan, everybody feels they have some insignts into and perhaps some ownership of each others' lives. What do you see as the strengths and weaknesses of small towns or communities?
Within the community, it is known that the butcher, Henry Beck, treats his wife poorly, but nobody does anything to intervene. Why is domestic violence tolerated or ignored, especially in small communities?
The bond humans feel for whales is an important theme in this book. Why do you think humans have such a strong sense of empathy for marine mammals?
The Stranding explores varying attitudes to modern and historic whaling. Given that humpback whales have recovered, do you think it is acceptable for some countries to resume low-level commercial whaling?
Given that we harvest other animals, why does it not seem appropriate to hunt whales?
Should all resources be exploited by humans, or should some things be preserved for their inherent or aesthetic values?
The Stranding explores the complexity and difficulties of rescuing a large stranded whale. How do you feel about the rescue of stranded whales? Should life be saved at any cost? How can human emotions be managed in a rescue such as this? Who benefits the most when natural death is diverted?
Do you think Lex and Callista have a future together? What options might there be for them?