|'The Storm Bottle' by Nick Green|
It’s a beautiful, transporting fantasy, set in Bermuda. The heat, the seas, the colours and scents, the sea-breezes of the island are a constant, and wonderfully evoked. I’ve never been to Bermuda, but after reading this book, I felt I had a sense of it. There’s one phrase, describing the aftermath of a tropical storm – the ‘shaken tin-foil glitter’ of the bright sun shining on the wet island. I could see it.
The book concerns characters who are out of place. The engaging heroine, Bibi, has felt out of place for her entire life. She’s a tom-boy, and bound up with the grief she feels for her dead mother is the knowledge that she was never the girlie-girl her mother wanted.
Her relationship with her rich father is amiable rather than close. So long as they can talk about sailing and boats, they get along fine. But Bibi rather scorns her father’s big, expensive boat. She prefers the little sailing boat belonging to her Bermudan friend, Hal, because sailing it brings her closer to the winds and currents. She loves Bermuda and its seas passionately.
Her father has married again, and this marriage has provided Bibi with a step-brother, Michael. He has been ripped from his scholarship-pace at choir-school, from his friends, from Britain – and is truly out of place in hot, bright Bermuda. He is sulky and resentful.
Bibi does her best to befriend him, trying to interest him in sailing and her pirate games, but he is unresponsive until, out sailing on Hal’s boat, they see a wild dolphin. Michael is so excited by the thought of swimming with it that Bibi almost likes him. Both of them dive in and, to her surprise Bibi, who has swum all her life, finds that Michael is the stronger swimmer.
This leads him into trouble, however. Despite Hal’s warnings, he ventures too far from the boat and is caught in the current.
Bibi thinks he is lost when, ‘Foam unzipped the waves and Michael’s pale body washed up into the sunshine…[Bibi] saw a crescent fin, a glass-boulder forehead. The dolphin…had returned.’ A 'glass-boulder forehead' - Nick Green has a knack for hitting on the perfect descriptive phrase.
But the dolphin has done more than return Michael to the surface. To save his life, it has exchanged souls with him.
If you can make this imaginative leap, whether young adult or older adult, you will love this book. If you can’t, you probably won’t. If you think all fantasy is daft, then you’ll think this daft too.
Fantasy is like any other genre. It can be written simplistically, as nothing but wish-fulfillment or gimmickry – and that sort of writing tends to be daft, whether it’s written in the Romance genre, or Crime, Science-Fiction or Thriller.
Or, as with any other genre, Fantasy can be written thoughtfully. It can be used as a way of alienating us from the everyday world we take for granted, so that we have to re-examine and re-evaluate it. Storm Bottle does this.
After the accident, the book follows Bibi on shore, and Michael in his new life.
On shore, in hospital, Michael is in a coma, and when he wakes, his confusion is assumed to be caused by brain-damage. His desperate mother smothers him with protective love. His new step-father withdraws, unable to cope – just as he withdrew from Bibi after her mother’s death, becoming an amiable but distant workaholic.
Only Bibi tries to understand the boy on his own terms. It is she who realises that the boy is not a brain-damaged Michael, but someone - something - else altogether.
Meanwhile, out at sea, Michael is also coming to terms with a whole new body and way of life. He finds himself swimming with a dolphin pod – two males, Pedro and Sancho, and an injured female, Jill, who is considered, by the males, to be their ‘property.’
The story may have fantastical elements, but the account of dolphin life is based on reality. These dolphins are not the cute, winsome mascots of New Age Harmony seen on a thousand posters, mouse-mats, t-shirts, pendents etc. They are predators, hunting and killing prey, and being hunted as prey by others.
They are intelligent, and they communicate – their clicks and whistles are translated into words for our benefit. But their intelligence is mostly used for catching fish, fighting with other dolphins, escaping from sharks and killer-whales – and capturing females, because the more females a pod has, the more status it has.
The chapters about Michael’s dolphin life are fascinating and often beautiful. The dolphins call themselves ‘rainvoices’, because the sounds they make are like rain falling on the ocean’s surface. They teach Michael how to use his dolphin-body’s ‘voice-eye’, or sonar.
Jill, the injured dolphin, is the sister of the dolphin Michael has become, and looks to him for food she can no longer catch for herself. Her injury has been caused by a fishing line which has wrapped itself round her tail, drawing tighter and tighter until it has sliced off a fin. Michael, with his human understanding, is able to see how to unravel it, and saves her from further injury – and from the endurance of constant pain.
Whereas his step-sister on land, Bibi, was tough and, in many ways, braver and more knowledgable than him, he now finds himself with an adoptive sister who, though more knowledgeable about life underwater, is also more helpless. In taking over as her protector and helper, he becomes close to her. In short, the sulky boy has to dolphin-up – but doesn’t always succeed. After all, as the dolphin Jill observes, ‘You are just a child, aren’t you?’
Michael seeks a way back to his own body and life on land. The other dolphins don’t know how to help, but lead him on a journey to consult ‘The Tidings.’ Michael understands this as some sort of archive, and is puzzled as to how such a thing can exist – until he discovers it to be the long, long memories of Humpback Whales, known to the dolphins as ‘Deep Singers.’
‘The humpack whale was too far ahead to see, even with his voice eye. Yet its song built majestic architectures around him, pillars of tone and melodious arches, bearing the weight of words.’
The whales remember a similar exchange of souls in the distant past, and give Michael hope that he can return to his own body.
Meanwhile, on land, Bibi and Rodrigez, the dolphin-in-human-form, have devised a way to send a message to Michael, using ‘a message in a bottle.’ Bibi sacrifices her beloved collection of antique bottles, throwing them into the sea with a one-word clue. They hope that the sea-borne Michael will find one of the bottles, decipher the clue, and so meet them at a certain cove where, perhaps, they can swop bodies again.
But their plans are disrupted when Michael’s mother leaves Bibi’s father. She intends to take her son home to Britain.
This forces the two young people to run away, and camp out on one of Bermuda’s off-shore islands, while the police search for them.
The finale brings together dolphins, human children and a great storm. I don’t think it will be giving away too much to say that Michael succeeds in returning to his human body – but Nick Green bravely resists the neat ending. He goes beyond that, and provides a more original ending, but one that is right for the book, and the characters.
A beautiful, invigorating fantasy, full of sea and sun, and deep, cool waters.
But also a fantasy which, by distorting reality, looks at how, if you are at odds with your surroundings, and feel you don’t fit, you can grow into your situation – or, with courage, break free of it and follow your own way.