Book review: Whistling Jack by Josephine Gardiner

Josephine Gardiner’s debut novel, Whistling Jack, begins with a literal shock as a cataclysmic landslip breaks off a four-mile stretch of the Cornish coast in 1821. Despite the wide-scale destruction of thousands of years cast down into the sea, of homes and farms and streets disappearing in the blink of an eye, nobody was hurt. That is, nobody was found to be hurt because local young woman Eliza Tabb is nowhere to be seen. In a freak coincidence, the landslip happens on the same day Napoleon dies, marking this an event of great change, of sudden, huge loss. The implication is that we are connected in ways we don’t often realise until much later or see at all, but the ripples pulse regardless.

While this event occurs 200 years in the past, Gardiner’s slow-burn mystery opens in a way that conjures present-day images of the climate crisis. When and where will the next great landslide happen? Who will be the first to fall into the chasm? This is not an environmental disaster novel, but the ghostly, abandoned and beautiful nature reserve that spawns out of this catastrophe known as The Fall (likely a nod to what the Bible calls the fall of man), impacts the characters in this novel across multiple generations. This collapse of nature is tethered to the emotional collapse of our characters, specifically eleven-year-old Sally Martins, who witnesses the death of a local schoolgirl while exploring the landslip in 1976, and James Prideaux (whose diary Sally reads as an adult 200 years later), an impoverished curate in love with the mother of the missing Eliza Tabb.

Gardiner does an admirable job weaving between these two timelines, offering a dense, tactile and ever-changing picture of the Cornish landscape. Although the narrative division, while thematically poignant and richly layered, results in a character-driven mystery that starts, stutters and never really takes off to a satisfying climax. But as The Fall in the novel will show you, there is still much to be found and fun to be had. Languid pacing aside, Whistling Jack is beautifully written and stuffed with vivid characters.

Unsurprisingly, Gardiner’s writing feels more at home in Sally’s voice, the young, impressionable, adventurous teen at its heart, than it does in the duller voice of 18th-century James Prideaux. This can’t help but make one side of the novel more interesting, and that’s the 1970s side, an engaging portrait of a crumbling childhood, unfolding like a lost and hazy summer we can all remember having but can’t quite recall – besides the dead body parts, or maybe not! This is where the bulk of the story takes place as Sally, along with her fiery trio of friends, Tracy, Victor, and the instantly striking Kerenza – a forceful, budding marine biologist who leaps off the page the moment she speaks – retreat from the adult world and into the secluded lure of The Fall. They are young, bored explorers, seeking thrills from trespassing, and as Tracy puts it: “The point is to be where we aren’t meant to be, and see things no one else sees.” Tragically, Tracy didn’t mean teenage girls floating downstream.

For reasons only the children know – although perhaps they don’t, like a lot of things in life, much remains a mystery – Tracy and the others don’t report the body they find in the water. Days later a murder is reported, bonds tested. Is the past repeating itself? Is The Fall somehow influencing things in the 1970s? At one point Sally sees a woman in the tropical wilds of what’s left of the landslide. Has she stumbled upon the restless ghost of Eliza Tabb? It could just as well have been another wanderer like Sally. A lot of these undercurrent mysteries hang in the air, frustrating, yes, but also their undiscovered truth is very much the point of Whistling Jack and largely what gives the book its heady, unsettled atmosphere – a real strength of Gardiner’s writing throughout.

The novel is full of connections, both in the story itself and in its structure. As a child, Sally explores the hidden, lost homes of The Fall, and then revisits the moment this earthly tremor happens through the recovered pages of James Prideaux’s private journal, leafing through the diary of the dead a different sort of intrusion. It’s an interesting conceit, but the back and forth between the 1970s and 1820s never feels as smooth and impactful as it perhaps should.

The title stems from the bright pinkish-red flowers found in the Isles of Scilly and Cornwall, and also refers to a bloody folktale written by one of the characters in the novel, in case you were wondering who Jack was and why I have not talked about his whistling. I have to mention the perfect snap of the last line but wished the book had been sharper and a little more focused on the whole. Those looking for a gripping mystery might be left wanting. I enjoyed Whistling Jack the most when viewed as a messy microcosm of how things can break down, on an environmental level, on an emotional and communication level, and what grows out of the wreckage.

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