We’re told not to judge a book by its cover but we all do it, at least in the literal sense. Why else is Waterstones full of vibrant, juicy covers begging to be picked up and admired? So, when I saw a whale on the front of this book, it enticed me enough to read the blurb. And what a hook: “Far from home and with no real hope of survival, Ruth finds herself climbing into the mouth of a beached whale alongside a stranger.” Without wanting to sound like a T-Bird, tell me more.
Ruth’s life has become a hamster wheel of alcohol, bed hopping and a sense of something missing. When her latest relationship becomes claustrophobic, she decides to break the monotonous cycle she’s found herself in and travel to New Zealand. Here she hopes to fulfil a childhood dream of working with whales, but apocalypse strikes as soon as she arrives – don’t you hate it when well-laid plans get disrupted? Together with a stranger she meets on the beach, Ruth climbs into the mouth of a beached whale just before the blast hits. This saves her life, but now she has to figure out how to continue living.
This is only half the book, though. Alternating between chapters set in post-apocalyptic New Zealand are fragments of Ruth’s old life and the events that led to her trip. Somehow, there were close parallels between a dystopian world and the everyday routine of a young woman living in London, made sharper by the interwoven timelines. Like all good protagonists, Ruth has many flaws, and this makes her feel real. She makes human mistakes, and despite also building a shelter from whale ribs and making clothes from dried deer hides, her story resonates.
For me, part of this connection came from the book’s setting. I’ve never been to New Zealand, but “the breeze from across the water” and pulling “the salt-stiffened collar of the fleece towards her ears” were familiar sensations. Rather than obvious seaside description, Kate Sawyer uses thoughtful observations of a coastal landscape that essentially apply to any sandy beach in the world. Although my life in England wasn’t nearly so troubled as Ruth’s, I know exactly how being pulled somewhere feels; in her case it was to the whales she’d studied as a child in London’s Natural History Museum. The wonder of that place is something I can definitely relate to.
Dystopian stories have never interested me much, but I loved The Stranding because it was so much more than that. In fact, the apocalypse element was a back-seat theme for me. I felt that the backbone of the story was a woman’s pursuit of happiness and finding the courage to break a cycle and start a better life. And in Ruth’s case, it’s a life she could never have predicted.