I jumped at the chance to read Pod, after having read The Bees and been bowled over by the Mayan inspired beehive world the author created. I was excited to see what Pod might offer and delighted to see it shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction. (The winner to be announced on Wed 14 June, 2023)
Laline Paull is fast becoming an afficianado of fiction set in the natural world.
An Immersive Oceanic World
Though not an easy read, Pod is a work of inspired literary genius. A cetacean epic, it is a fictional account of dolphin tribe rivalry and a coming-of-age of story of one of the pod, created from real knowledge of environmental science and marine biology. Clearly, a lot of background research and animal behavioural understanding underpins the narrative.
Laline Paull explains in an afterword how the novel was partly inspired following an excursion swimming with wild dolphins.
I learned that this big, noisy pod first appeared in this area after an oil spill up the coast forced them to move on. On arrival in this bay, they deposed the small resident pod of spinner dolphins, who left and were not seen again.
Set in the ocean, from within pods of dolphins, we view an underwater world, peopled by different species as their environment changes, how this affects their habits and behaviours towards others species.
Whales and dolphins are citizens of their world (the ocean), and Pod gives them voice, and readers a view, from within their ecosystem that humans have compromised. Referring to them collectively as people at first seems strange and then it feels appropriate.
Animals Like Humans Like Animals
Sometimes those behaviours mimic dysfunctional aspects of human societal behaviour, such as those brought about by a system of domination, the use of fear, violence and subjugation to keep the female species in line, making examples of the weak and young, banishing the old.
At the same time, their signals become confused by the changing conditions of the ocean, the noise from large ships, pollution, mutations, a general warming and the presence of a large contaminated patch full of micro-plastics.
It grew by the day, by the motion of each tide, yet it remained an inert drifting thing, a negative sea within the ocean. It gathered its great amorphous body piece by piece of plastic, and it made peculiar sounds as it crushed and released, spreading out on the surface, and down to the depths.
The story follows the lives of a young female spinner dolphin Ea, of the Longi tribe; another named Google who has been bred in captivity by a military handler, now alone and lost in the ocean he knows nothing of; a pod of bottle-nose dolphins, the Tursiops tribe lead by dominant, aggressive males who have harems.
There are also a few other fish species characters that provide lighter entertainment value, including an informative, commensal Remora that sticks to the dolphins and can infiltrate their thoughts.
To spin like everyone else was the key to fitting in, and if she could only hear the music of the ocean like everyone else, she too would be able to tune in and do it.
The Longi have been forced out of their homewater by an invasion of the cruel barbaric Tursiops tribe. After a tragedy, Ea leaves her pod and is abducted by a group of exiled male Tursiops.
With Google now roaming the ocean alone, it is only a matter of time before there will be an encounter, leading to the novel’s denouement.
When the sharks saw him, with his wounds and his peculiar energy like no other dolphin they had ever encountered, they left him alone. He was not prey, and when one sub-adult tiger shark became too curious, Google remembered the game of tag, and butted back harder than the juvenile had touched him. That was all it took, one contact and and another part of Google’s instinctive mind opened up. Shark.
Belonging, Finding Home, Community
It’s an ambitious concept and at times difficult to read, due to the treatment inflicted and the dire presence of man, acting in a way that yields little respect for the environment these creatures live and spawn within.
Ultimately, it explores aspects of belonging to a species, how they control from inside and treat outsiders and the rebel within.
Their homewater was no more, powerful devils were ripping the ocean apart and their screaming was killing pods of pilots, of humpbacks, of dolphins.
It is appropriate to mourn the losses, who really knows what it must be like to be a marine animal living in an environment that has been so compromised by a species that lives on land, that continually exploits, pollutes and disregards the fragile biosphere within which they dwell.
Death was everywhere, people were fleeing, the ocean was either full of refugees or terrifyingly empty.
Natural World Fiction
As a work of fiction, this was far outside what I normally read and as such it is hard to describe in those terms. The dolphin characters were interesting as they tried to understand their own inner signals and navigate their increasingly confused environment and community. Reading about dolphins as a society is quite confronting, when we learn that they are far from the playful characters we have been lead to believe.
The unfamiliarity of some of the other species made it a challenge to visualise some of the characters, it was necessary for me to look up some of these fish species, testing the limits of my imagination. It was just not possible to substitute Dory and Nemo for Wrasse, Fugu and Remora!
Pod is quite a ride, a thought provoking, confronting read that makes no apologies for the dark, realistic world it inhabits.
Interview Orion Magazine: An Ocean of Agony and Ecstasy – 7 questions for Laline Paull about her new novel ‘Pod’
Laline Paull on Substack: Storytelling and the Climate Crisis Science + emotion = change. Using the power of storytelling to communicate the climate crisis.
Captain Paul Watson: Where Others Fear To Go, We Will Continue to Fight
Seaspiracy Documentary Trailer
Oceana – Protecting the World’s Oceans
Mission Blue – Hope Spots
Laline Paull, Author
Laline Paull was born in England. Her parents were first-generation Indian immigrants. She studied English at Oxford University, screenwriting in Los Angeles, and theatre in London.
She has had two plays performed at the Royal National Theatre, where she is currently adapting her first novel, The Bees. Her second novel The Ice, was set in the Arctic. She is a member of BAFTA and the Writers’ Guild of America. She lives in the English countryside with her family.
“I loved finding out about different dolphin cultural expressions, which made me think: They’re just like us. They’re tribal. They like different foods, different dances; they make love or coercively mate, have political alliances, get into great big amorous raves—it was wonderful to discover these things through the strict unemotional lens of science. Then run away and make a wild story of it.” Laline Paull, interview, Orion Magazine