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Sounding the Blood

by Amanda Hale

Amanda Hale’s training as a poet shows in her debut novel, Sounding the Blood, a finely woven tale of five lives lived at a remote whaling station in 1915. The training is there in the sinewy phrasing and layered description, in the lushly symbolized dream fragments, and in the measured rhythm of realistic dialogue.

The story unfolds over a year at Rose Harbour, on the southern tip of B.C.’s Queen Charlotte Islands. Leo Slaney is the whaling station boss, a transplanted Newfoundlander attempting to repair his marriage with Nora. Nora harbours old grief and new desire, writing about it all in her journal. Their daughter Isobel wants what she wants – in this case, the love of a young Japanese suitor. Slaney oversees the work of Chinese and Japanese labourers, and Kazuo Yamamoto dreams of the family he left behind in Japan.

Hale expertly unwinds the story through the voices of each character, letting the pieces accrue until the whole falls into place. The dangers that touch each life are expertly handled, whether it be the danger posed by slaughtering whales, or by living in close quarters with men out of place and far from home, or by love forbidden by social convention and skin colour.

Hale misses her footing twice, with a prologue and epilogue that feel tacked on. She attempts to give the story a contemporary frame with the introduction of Sophia, a Hollywood costumer who retreats to Rose Harbour and there discovers echoes of those who went before her. Both sections are short and strongly written, but they are incidental to the story and cumbersome. The stories that unfold between them are so engaging I was glad each time I turned the page to find myself still in the past.