Our own PD Smith in the Times Literary Supplement:
Herman Melville’s epic novel Moby-Dick (1851) is Philip Hoare’s guiding star in this beautifully written celebration of cetaceans, a word that comes from the Greek word ketos, sea monster. He glosses Melville’s fiction as a meditation on “man, whale, life, death”. Hoare’s book, like Moby-Dick, is on one level a rich source of information about these ancient mammals, from natural history to their role in our lives and myths. But Leviathan is also a deeply personal narrative that weaves together travelogue, memoir and literary history.
In Moby-Dick, Ishmael’s “splintered heart and maddened hand were turned against the wolfish world” and he seeks the solace of the sea. Disillusioned with city life, Hoare, who admits that he has “always been afraid of deep water”, also turns to the ocean – “the last true wilderness” – as an antidote to London, for the “place that had represented all my youthful aspirations now felt like a viral infection”. He follows in Ishmael’s wake, travelling from New York down to Cape Cod and New Bedford – aka the Whaling City, where he visits Father Mapple’s chapel – and then on to Nantucket. In the sea off Cape Cod, Hoare watches the whales: “I envied them the fact that they were always swimming; that they were always free”, and later visits Melville’s grave on “a bare Bronx hill”, where the writer lies next to his two sons who preceded him into the grave.
Even today, in the age of particle colliders and space exploration, we know precious little about some of the planet’s oldest inhabitants; as Hoare says, “cetaceans remain unfathomable.”