Book Review

The Swallowed Man by Edward Carey

I am writing this account, in another man’s book, by candlelight, inside the belly of a fish. I have been eaten. I have been eaten, yet I am living still.

From the acclaimed author of Little comes this beautiful and haunting imagining of the years Geppetto spends within the belly of a sea beast.

Drawing upon the Pinocchio story while creating something entirely his own, Carey tells an unforgettable tale of fatherly love and loss, pride and regret, and of the sustaining power of art and imagination.

I think that most people are familiar with the story of Pinocchio, and The Swallowed Man takes its inspiration from that tale, giving us the perspective of Pinocchio’s creator / father, Geppetto.  It’s an intriguing premise, and one that allows the reader to learn more about Geppetto’s views on what he created, his background and life prior to Pinocchio’s creation as well as the years spent inside the belly of a whale. 

The novel opens with Geppetto already in the stomach of this huge creature, resigned to his fate after his attempts to get out have failed, setting down his story while he can: 

I can boast no battlefields; this is no murderer’s story; there is no great romance.  But before all this, back on land, I did an extraordinary thing.

Fair warning – this is no Disneyfied narrative.  It’s a story as dark as Geppetto’s new home as he sees out his time, not knowing how long he’s has been trapped, nor how much longer he will survive.

From his rather unfortunate position, Geppetto tells the reader of Pinocchio’s creation, and his shock at seeing a carved wooden boy come to life, able to move independently, to talk and think.  I couldn’t help but think a little of Frankenstein as Geppetto seems to reject Pinocchio initially, his behaviour bordering on cruelty as he punishes Pinocchio for lying and misbehaving.  Geppetto does come to accept and care for his creation, however, and the two form a bond, with Geppetto coming to see Pinocchio as a son, rather than a puppet.  He’s distraught when Pinocchio doesn’t return home after his first day of school and set out to find him – a mission that ultimately sees him swallowed by a whale. 

Geppetto also shares more information about his background – his childhood and the pressure to continue in the family’s pottery trade, despite his obvious preference and skill in woodcraft.  He shares the details of his life – the loves he has experienced, and how he ultimately came to be alone.  As I got to know him, I found myself liking him more and more.  Carey has created a character who is sympathetic despite his flaws, and this adds a poignancy to the narrative given the hopelessness of his situation.

While learning more about his past, we also come to understand his present situation.  He discovers a ship in the whale’s belly – swallowed whole, or near enough – that holds some supplies of food, water, and wine.  He finds a book in which he writes about his life and experiences, and candles which give him some light.  But as these supplies decrease – the candles in particular – there is an increasing sense of doom at the hopelessness of his situation that both he and the reader share, and perhaps the beginning of a descent into madness as Geppetto’s mental state – understandably – begins to deteriorate.  For such a short novel (it extends to some 160ish pages), it packs an emotional punch as you become invested in his story. 

Like Little, The Swallowed Man is illustrated by the author throughout, bringing the story to life for the reader.  It’s a fascinating premise and a brilliantly told and original tale.  Recommended.

The Swallowed Man is published by Gallic Books and is available now. 

Also by Edward Carey:

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