Review: ‘Whistling Jack’ by Josephine Gardiner

“Cornwall, summer 1976: eleven year old Sally Martins and her new friends – Tracy Pender, Victor Jordan and Kerenza Nankervis – are in retreat from the adult world, spending days and nights at an abandoned house on the subtropical landslip known as the Fall. When they discover the body of a young girl, for various reasons, they do not report it.

Six years later as questions about the dead girl resurface in the local community and the teenagers, as they now are, face an inevitable reckoning. Sally starts reading the journal of James Prideaux, an impoverished curate, who two hundred years earlier witnessed the landslip at the Fall and whose lover’s daughter, Eliza Tabb, went missing the same day.

The two crises, though apart by centuries, echo each other and examine how a moral error in childhood can dictate choices over a lifetime, raising tensions between faith, self-deception, memory and myth both stories show that inaction – being the ‘innocent bystander’ – has consequences.

This summer saw the release of Josephine Gardiner’s debut novel ‘Whistling Jack’ and I was delighted to be asked if I would review a copy. I have to say that it has been an absolute pleasure immersing myself in this beautifully written book!

Whistling Jack really is a wonderful read, haunting, intriguing, the narrative weaves together a number of different storylines in such a clever way that you find yourself effortlessly pulled along. As someone who can find themselves nodding off after a few pages of a book (I have a habit of reading in bed!) I found I was eager to read “just one more chapter”. Unputdownable. And after I had finished I kept returning to the characters and the unravelling of their story in my mind again and again!

The four children, Sally, Victor, Tracy and Kerenza, particularly grabbed me, as a child of the 1970s and 80s I recognised them and their world. The duality that growing up in Cornwall brings, the feeling of being totally free, long hot summers where your parents didn’t know where you were and didn’t really care, tempered by boredom and the knowledge that there was so much more going on in the world that you couldn’t quite reach or understand.

whistling jack

‘Whistling Jack’ doesn’t fit neatly into any genre but that is definitely to its advantage. There are wonderfully observed historical details, alongside the warmth of friendship and unfolding love stories, as well as some mystery, thriller and crime elements too. Cornish myths and legends are also there, like a background hum in the text.

Set in the Penzance and Newlyn area, though the names have been changed, one narrative tells the story of the little gang of children through that pivotal summer in 1976 when they stumble upon a crime scene, and then later the consequences of that day as they edge towards adulthood, while the other is set in 1827 and takes the form of the journal of the curate, James Prideaux. But rather than this being confusing the book expertly manages to jump back and forth between these storylines without loosing pace or the reader loosing the thread. In fact one narrative feeds off or in some ways mirrors the other.

As someone who loves a good murder mystery ‘Whistling Jack’ kept me intrigued and guessing right until the end! But this is not a traditional crime novel, it is more about the choices we all make, both the big and the seemingly inconsequential, and the ripples that those decisions create through our lives and the lives of those around us.

This novel is just beautifully written with characters you feel for and empathise with and a mystery that will draw you on page after page!

Interview with Josephine Gardiner

  • Can you tell me a little bit about yourself and your connections to Cornwall?

Well, I’m afraid I’m not Cornish at all, but I’ve lived here in Penzance for 13 years, and was familiar with the county before that. I was born in Oxford, and have lived all over the place – London, Barcelona, Brighton. With Penzance, I think I was attracted to the idea of being at the last stop on a long railway line, where it meets the sea. My narrator Sally Martins moves to Cornwall with her parents in 1976 when she is 11, so her
perspective from the start is that of an outsider, and to some extent remains so as she grows up. I think outsiders can often make better narrators.

  • What is the meaning of the title, Whistling Jack?

In brief, three things – first, whistling jacks are the magentaflowers that you see in Cornish hedgerows in April and May (gladiolus communis, subspecies byzantinus). ‘Whistling Jack’ is also the title of a story written by the character Tracy Pender, one of the children in the novel, about a sailor who falls in love with a selkie and dies a violent death to be with her. Finally, Jack is the name of two significant children in the life of my 19th-century character, James Prideaux. More generally, perhaps Whistling Jack is the spirit of the place.

The author, Josephine Gardiner, credit Lee Searle
  • You have worked as a journalist for a long time, what made you want to turn your hand to writing fiction?

Interesting question – I’ve been reading fiction constantly from a very young age, and most of my working life has been spent writing and editing, but it was always newspaper articles. I had this idea that novelists sat down to write with a clear plan in mind, with characters, plot, theme, place, style, all worked out. Perhaps some do, but it felt overwhelming to me, I didn’t have the confidence, and for many years I didn’t have the time – I was always working on something else.

Then, on a whim, I took a course in creative writing with Linda Cleary in Penzance. It was only about 20 hours altogether, but what Linda showed us was that a story can emerge from a fleeting memory, an image, an overheard conversation in a cafe, or that imaginary argument you have with someone while washing up -anything really. Slowly these apparently random things start to coalesce, fastening themselves like limpets to a broader theme, something you really want to say.
After the course I remember standing on the harbour at Penzance and imagining a tsunami coming in – an image of destruction. I went home and wrote a few pages. Whistling Jack doesn’t actually start with a tsunami but a massive landslip – but there was an impulse to clear the decks of the real world to create a
different, but related one. ‘St Anthony’ in the book is a blend of Newlyn and Mousehole, ‘Trebeere’ is Penzance, and ‘St Dominic’ is Gulval. Otherwise all names are real Cornish names. I wanted to write about the haunted, mysterious quality of Cornwall, but include at the same time the hard realities of insecurity, especially in housing – several of my characters get evicted.

  • I was particularly struck by the historical details in ‘Whistling Jack’, so much so that I felt like I must have heard the story before, so had to go off and google the death of Napoleon and the Fall in case I had missed this episode in Cornwall’s history! Did you do a lot of research for that aspect of the story, the wonderful details you included and for the life of James Prideaux?

I already knew quite a bit about Napoleon and his burial on St Helena, but the connection between his death and Cornwall is imaginary. My character James Prideaux is born on the same day as the Emperor (August 15, 1769), and he is secretly fascinated by Napoleon, the man of action. James Prideaux is definitely not a man of action – his whole life has been spent avoiding it (until the novel begins and he is forced to act), and he has no money, power or influence. So it’s an attraction of opposites. Napoleon himself does haunt the story in a way – a lot of the events in the 1970s and 1980s take place in the Bonaparte Hotel (loosely based on the Union Hotel in Penzance).

The huge landslip I call ‘the Fall’ was inspired by the Undercliff landslip at Lyme Regis in Dorset, so I’ve taken a few liberties with place and geology!
In terms of research, what felt more important was to convey what it actually felt like to live in the 1820s – what people ate, what their rooms looked like, their clothes, their assumptions; what it was like to attend a public hanging outside Bodmin gaol when the condemned person was your lover. I did immerse myself in social history, because you have to write with the voice of the time – to have all their background knowledge at your fingertips – you can’t use your characters to explain things, it’s not ‘history’ to them.

  • I absolutely loved the characters you created, the four children especially, they felt like kids I would have known growing up, did they come to you fully formed or grow as the story unfolded?

Thank you, I’m glad you liked them. At the start had a rough idea that they should be four very different personalities, bonded through their isolation. This comes out partly in their attitudes to the abandoned house in the temperate rainforest on the Fall. Sally’s response is mainly aesthetic. For rational Kerenza, it is a
scientific opportunity, and for Victor, an escape from being his family’s scapegoat and a place where he can be a hero. For Tracy, the most traumatised of the four, it is home, a place where often terrifying myths about seals, selkies and giant owls come to life. When the children stumble across a crime scene, these differences
come into conflict. I had a good idea how the novel would end, but yes the characters developed as I wrote them relating to each other and growing up.

I was interested in examining children’s relationships with each other, rather than with parents or other adults, and in that strange time at the very end of childhood, just before adolescence, when children seem eerily self-sufficient. In terms of characters in general, I was keen to give every character, however minor their role, a distinct individuality – I hate it when ‘minor characters’ are just names on a page.

  • Have you another book in the pipeline, can we expect anymore from these characters?

I do have ideas, but I’m thinking of something quite different. Whistling Jack takes place mostly within one small isolated west Cornwall town. I would like to write something where the people are in transit, over great distances, on trains. I’ve spent a lot of my life on trains.

Get a copy of Whistling Jack.

If my review has tempted you (and it should!) you can grab a copy HERE

Meet the Author

Whistling Jack is one of the books to be featured at the North Cornwall Book Festival (Sept 22 to Sept 25 at St Endellion) and Josephine will be appearing to read an extract and answer questions about the book. 

Please note: I have not been paid for this review, all opinions are my own, I was however gifted a copy of the book.

Further Reading

Strange Waters – Interview with the Author, Jackie Taylor

Review: Five Million Tides, a biography of the Helford River by Christian Boulton

Read more book reviews HERE

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