The Virgin and the Whale (a delightful read!)

It looks like it was meant to be a used book.

Was it meant to be a used book?

A mild-mannered tinkle announces your arrival and in just two steps your hopes are dashed by the sight of scattered books and a pervasive scent of mold. You might search for a week and never find what you’re looking for. You consider escape but the guy behind the counter looks so sad and hungry that you can’t bring yourself to turn around. So you stroll all nonchalant past the first shelf to look for something that won’t set you too far back. Maybe you can give it to your cousin for her birthday.

Scribes isn’t at all like that. Sure there are piles of books on the floor and most of the shelves lean precariously close. But there’s a deep organization behind the madness. The “New Zealand Literature” section hasn’t moved in 10 years and the authors line up in almost-alphabetical, order. I don’t browse, but go straight to that shelf and rustle through as if everything on it was already mine. I’m always looking for The Vintner’s Luck because I keep giving my copy away and who doesn’t need another copy of Mister Pip? I’ve yet to locate The Bone People, but if it’s ever there I’ll snatch it up. Once were Warriors is always in stock.

Scribes, Dunedin, New Zealand

Scribes, Dunedin, New Zealand

I bought The Virgin & the Whale for its title and the incongruous cover. (Imagine a new book cover made to look used!) I told myself not to expect much. What a lucky mistake! Carl Nixon writes with a deft touch and he  blends post-modern and archaic elements in a mix that would land with a clunk if rendered by a less dextrous hand. The claim that a mysterious “MN” invited Nixon to tell his family’s story – the cafe meeting – the old manuscript that persuaded Nixon to take on the project. They all ring true but they also make for a strange invocation that troubles the boundary between fiction and non. Then there’s a love story that wants to be told – love and loss, frailty and heroism – elegantly woven in with a children’s tale about a balloonist. We’re told the female protagonist, Elizabeth, made up the balloonist story to help her orphaned son fall asleep. Later we learn that The Balloonist was rejected by a narrow-minded publisher for including the word “virgin” in its pages. Later we learn that its plot might have come from a Tarzan movie – so many possibilities in this gentle tale of stories and authors. The book tests a few endings before settling on one that I found entirely satisfactory. I don’t want to spoil it for you, but would urge you to pick up a copy for yourself. I’m sure you’ll enjoy it. Then let me know what you think.

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