Seventeen-year old Dinah has spent almost all her life on a religious commune somewhere in Northumberland (in northern England), being educated at home with the other children. Only recently has she gone to a ‘proper’ school, and her feelings of culture shock and confusion are convincingly drawn. When we first meet her, something awful has happened (which de Waal delays telling us about), and Dinah is taking advantage of her mother’s absence on a Women’s Retreat to reinvent herself as ‘Ishmael’, cutting off her long hair and shaving it down to the scalp, and run away entirely from her problems. What actually happens is that she ends up driving her angry, embittered neighbour (and ex-commune member) Ahab in a campervan called the Pequod (and yes, the Moby-Dick parallels are entirely intentional) on a road trip south to recover another campervan which Ahab has been restoring and which has been apparently stolen, along with Ahab’s prosthetic leg.
De Waal weaves the story of their trip south with flashbacks of anachronic incidents from Dinah’s past, showing the reader how both she and Ahab have got to these points in their lives. Their encounters in their road trip, with an old priest, Gabriel, a couple of kind passers-by, ‘Sumo’ and Pip, Ahab’s sister Rachel and Jude, Rachel’s wife, and lastly, and unexpectedly, with family, help Dinah to disentangle her confusion and understand herself better, and then give her the courage to confront her difficulties rather than run away.
If she’d kept quiet, kept her feelings to herself, she wouldn’t be in this position. If she’d been polite, she wouldn’t be running away.
This is a short novel, but it stays in the memory. Dinah and her confusion and desperation is believable and likeable, and the teenage tendency to blow up minor difficulties into insurmountable obstacles makes her solution to her problems understandable. De Waal treats all her characters with love and understanding, showing the good and bad in them, but concentrating on the good parts, adroitly showing the reader, not telling us, how they got that way. I particularly liked how Dinah’s shame over her romantic feelings for her friend Queenie became transmuted into something more positive by the simple act of naming herself, and the support of people like her. The book is divided into short chapters – scenes – which are mostly told from Dinah’s restricted point of view, but which tell us, as readers, more than they tell Dinah. The anachronic order of the story builds tension and explanation by turns.
The book ends with some resolution, having combed out a little the tangle of Dinah’s life and emotions into something more bearable; a foundation for her to build the next part of her life, as well as allowing Ahab some closure to his emotional pain, too.