My novel of the year: Pod, by Laline Paull

by Maria on December 16, 2022

This year I spent three months in Western Australia without the notebook I record my reading in, and never caught up again, so I’ve no idea whether I read ‘enough’ in the categories I intended to; nonfiction, fiction in translation, fiction in Irish and French. (I strongly suspect not, though.) I began recording books started/read about five years ago and found it instantly made me more able to give most away afterwards; once the book’s name, author and my impression have been written down, I feel far less need to hold onto it. At first, I kept another notebook and wrote a page or so about each text, but I immediately fell hopelessly behind. I switched to – hold your nose – using a smiley face system in the first notebook to record my impressions. Very occasionally I’ll add a comment like ‘great dismount’, but most books just get :-( :-| :-) or the coveted :-0 which means I was awestruck. It’s actually a neat little system, as seeing each book listed with others I read in the same month jogs my memory of them all, and reminds me of where I was. I also record an R for re-reads, P for poetry, NF for non-fiction and T for in translation. About 60% of what I read is novels written in English, so that dominant doesn’t need a category at all. At the end of the year I tot up the total. It’s edged from around fifty per annum to the high sixties (I don’t include most books or any parts of books read for research, or articles, etc.), which feels low compared to many book-ish people, but a reasonable amount to be getting on with. It’s also … clarifying … to realise that at this rate I’ll likely read – for interest and pleasure – only another two thousand or so books in my life. They can’t all be :-0 of course, but I’m now less likely to persevere with ones I don’t get on with.

Anyway, this is all to say that in 2022 one book swam swiftly through my system leaving no less than two :-0’s in its wake, and merits not just a proper write-up but a strong exhortation to consider getting your hands on a copy for yourself or someone else. On this final weekend before Christmas, I commend to you Pod, by Laline Paull, the most extraordinary, beautiful, dramatic and arresting novel I’ve read this year.

Pod is a novel about dolphins, mostly, told from the points of view of several marine creatures living in the Indian Ocean. Its main character is Ea, a young spinner dolphin who lives in a small, egalitarian and loving pod off an archipelago. Ea can’t spin or hear the ocean’s own soothing music, but she hears and can’t ignore the devastating song of pain and fear sung by a lone humpback whale out in the deep ocean. The pod is sympathetic to Ea’s disability, but her strong feelings of difference propel Ea out of her family group and into the orbit of the autocratic and patriarchal tribe of tursiops, or common bottle nose dolphins, who previously ejected her people from their ancestral home.

The novel is peopled with wholly believable creatures embedded in the habits, language and culture of their species and group. A devastating and beautiful character, Google, is a dolphin trained by the US navy and sent on a mission he cannot survive. In a chilling and obscene truncation of these creatures’ rich social lives, the military dolphins share almost no language and are kept drugged in separate tanks, to bond only with their ‘anthrops’, i.e humans. Google is unusual as he refuses to harm his human in any training exercise. His essential – what we’d call ‘humanity’, elsewhere – is fundamental, even though he knows nothing about himself or where and who he comes from. He and all the creatures in Pod are driven to find and return to base, or home, in an ocean made increasingly unliveable by human activity. Tankers churn across whales’ migration paths – ‘song lines’ – and destroy whole families. Ships’ noise drives dolphins mad and makes them turn to eating soporific but poisonous fish to deaden the pain. A horrifying scene of dolphins being cornered for a massacre forms the crisis of the novel.

However, Pod’s achievement is far greater than what a smaller and purely didactic novel might have aimed for; a simple switch of viewpoint so humans can see ourselves as we might appear to other species. Pod does something much more wonderful. It creates a whole world and briefly permits us to enter. The first thing I noticed and instantly loved was how Ea and all the characters simply refer to each other as people. It’s a subtle but insistent claim made throughout. These creatures are, to themselves and each other, people. They have families, rivalries, enemies, rituals, histories, culture and, above all, language to express it all with. Pod is speculative fiction grown from deep and contemporary scientific research. Pretty much everything in it is based on what humans have been able to record and observe, and what can reasonably be inferred – from the different but related languages of sea mammals to the bonds of family groups, to what are effectively wars between groups, and the complex and multivalent relationships between species.

These relationships are conveyed with just the right amount of grit in the oyster; a thoroughly amoral remora attaches itself to Ea and can read her conscious thoughts. She hates and can’t get rid of him, but he can also tell her about life outside the archipelago, and correct her on the important, to him, distinction between a parasitic and commensal relationship. The relations between different species are so rich, probably because they each really do feel like people, albeit people in wildly different cultures and settings. Moray eels with small, wise eyes see everything but commit almost nothing. A wrasse fish completes a bizarre and ecstatic sex change as the whole ocean becomes a euphoric, gamete-soaked moil on the Spring full moon. And, crucially, the violent misogyny of the tursiops feels as real as in any human society. The male ruler’s consort, Devi, quietly exercises her power over the female tursiops both to maintain her position and to mitigate, for her allies, the practical deficiencies of a culture where the male leader cannot be seen to be weak. Devi, the first-wife of Lord Ka, is a difficult, hard-nosed enabler of male violence whose world is upended by Ea, who simply doesn’t get how it works.* Devi and Ka use ‘divide and conquer’ to manage factions and harems, and heap seemingly inevitable violence and neglect onto their megapod’s ‘peripherals’. Even such details as how they ration a pain-relieving soporific along strictly hierarchical lines ring very true. These are animals acting as we have seen animals act, but within a more densely politico-cultural frame of interpretation than we are used to.

Pod is told mostly from the viewpoints of these characters, and plotted with what you see in retrospect as great precision and an inexorable drive to its painful climax. Along the way, each person’s experience of life in the ocean is so rich and encompassing that you’re wrapped up in their stories and only barely aware of the pieces moving into final positions. It doesn’t spoil any of the story by saying that I was often glad of its prologue by a much older Ea who looks back on the story’s events from a place of greater peace and safety. So much of our relationship with other organisms of this planet is now mediated by dread and a feeling of barely wanting to even look, that some assurance felt needed, even if, for us as a species, it’s unearned. I won’t want to say any more about the story than that, to leave you the satisfaction of endings and, meanwhile, the anguish of uncertainties and particular characters’ sufferings. I will just say that I hoped desperately for Google to find or make some sort of true home for himself, and that his moment of resolution is breath-taking.

I eked Pod out over a few months. By delightful coincidence, I read most of it while in Western Australia and spending as much time as I could near or in the Indian Ocean. One weekend I brought it to an island and watched seals bask on rocks out to sea, read a bit on a beach where hundreds of tiny silver fish nipped about my toes, then stashed it in a backpack for the trip back across a migratory path of orcas. For months in Perth I’d felt like the only person alive who’d not seen the dolphins swimming in the Swan river, until I finally did, and once I’d got the hang of it I spotted them almost every day. Dolphins will never not seem magical creatures. Their intelligence, humour and just transcendent horniness feels like the kind of vibe our planet should be rocking to.

One day, my husband was wading in the sea with his back to it when a group of three young bottle-noses flashed up behind him. Two males were frisking about with a female and all – though how would I really know how to read this? – seemed to be having a terrific time. It felt like a happier version of one of Pod’s especially memorable scenes. Pod is great on animal sexuality in all its facets, drawing on a literature of increasingly anthropological observation that shows how sex, for cetaceans, is not just biological and not even just social, but might even be interpreted as cultural. For many years, naturists avoided anthropomorphising the animals they observed, but things now seem to have swung away from the almost behaviourist sparsity of that stance, and more towards the idea that animals have not just emotions, but all the complex, collective emotional experiences we call politics. Unlike scientists, novelists are free to embroider from the basic, observed patterns, and Paull describes how the primary shared story of Ea’s pod – the tale of exodus from its true home – is transmitted as a shared, swum dance, or a “kinetic prayer of thanks” for deliverance. Pod ties ocean-dwellers’ travels and sexuality to the moon’s cycle in a way that seems right as a piece of speculative fiction, but only one or two steps removed from what researchers currently know.

The novel doesn’t feel like it does world-building so much as world-describing, so utterly convincing is it. It’s a masterpiece of immersion (!) that makes its world seem at once fresh and surprising, but also right. Everything fits together. Manta rays occupy a quasi-supernatural realm, neither fully one thing nor another, “spirit kin to both sharks and birds, joining water and air.” They are sea-bound creatures that can be suckered, literally, by remora, but also deliver telepathic messages and prophecies to chosen dolphins. Pod conveys perfectly the feeling of bewitchment these otherworldly creatures transmit. On a guided swim off the Ningaloo Reef, my husband and I came unexpectedly upon four manta-rays, a majestic-looking female and the three males courting her. As we hovered above them with others in our group, trying not to hyper-ventilate through our snorkels, the four creatures performed a stately ballet, wheeling about in a circular formation as symmetrical and ever-changing as a single, unique snowflake. Their vast, bright rectangular mouths contrasted with huge black fins to give the impression of nuns in old-fashioned habits, but their close echoing of each other’s movements was anything but virginal. In a strange way I couldn’t really explain, they seemed to have a remarkable though ethereal sense of humour. I was so glad to have first encountered them in the pages of this novel. Pod grows fully out of what we have scientifically observed of these mysterious creatures, but brings to that observation a world of possible meaning. It just feels right, and never more than in the inarguably spiritual moment of meeting another species in its own realm. I’ll always be grateful I carried Pod with me in mind when I got into the ocean that day (though I’d like to have inhaled less sea water when I giggled in pure thrill at seeing the real-life mantas’ remoras swimming along underneath them).

One last thought about Pod. It is all about language. In its purely fictional world, if I’ve rightly understood it, the dolphins’ clicks are their own, but the words they communicate with are a descendant of a language called Ancient Pelagic, shared with whales. Ea can understand the song of the lonely humpback whale because they have a shared ancestral language, and Ea shares a private, silent, hunting language with her mother. This mode of silent communication becomes crucial, later on, as Ea challenges the harsh political order of the tursiops. But all the novel’s people share the language of movement and a desperate need to find a safe home. Pod is about how these living, thinking, feeling beings try desperately to continue to exist in a world humans are wrecking (the current Cop 15 working agreement on biodiversity does terribly little for marine life). The truth, as the novel says, is “hard to believe, harder to bear.”

If anything in this piece strikes a chord with you or sparks your curiosity, believe me, the novel is so much better than I can describe. It really is a world to live inside, even if that’s a world our species is destroying.

*Content warning: the novel contains two scenes of sexual violence.



Cola Vaughan 12.19.22 at 3:56 am

Thank you for this review Maria. I’m sure you didn’t intend to solicit dolphin sex stories but I can’t resist sharing this one. I live at the southwestern edge of the great Jockey’s Ridge sand dune on the soundside of the Outer Banks of North Carolina. The Dune borders the the waters of the Roanoke Sound and is almost directly across from the Roanoke Island site of the Lost Colony. The waters of the Sound adjacent to the dune are very shallow for a great distance from the shore due to sand blown into the Sound from storms and eroded from the shoreline by other storms and rising sea levels.

One late summer afternoon I was sailing a minifish out into the Sound going for deeper water to take a dip, and sort of sliding along over the shallow sandy flats with the rudder completely up to avoid dragging the bottom in the water not much more than a foot deep and suddenly found myself surrounded sailing right through this huge group of dolphin; more than 100, maybe 200 or more, seeming to stretch out of sight from my low vantage point. I then became aware that they were mostly paired off and were sort of rolling or roiled about together and then realized I was in the middle of what appeared to be a very large dolphin orgy. They really seemed to be sort of ecstatic and then I was through them and headed out into deeper water. Thinking about it later I decided they had intentionally chosen that location because it provide a perfect chance to use a solid sandy bottom as a brace for a pas de deux without the risk of getting stuck or trapped on the bottom. But still….. and so many together at once! It was such a one-off chance observation. Guess I was really lucky and maybe it helped that the little rudderless sailboat was probably nearly silent.

I see small pods of dolphin, probably bottlenose, almost any time I walk the beach which is to say they are a common sight along the beaches of the northern OBX. I’ve surfed with them (they are great surfers and seemingly love to leap out of the tops of big waves and sort of skip down the face like a rock skipping across a pond) and swam with them and lain on the bow of fishing boats while they surfed the bow waves nearly close enough to touch but never read much about them or read anything about their sexuality and had wondered at what I chanced to encounter.

Can’t wait now to get my hands on “Pod”


Maria 12.19.22 at 2:14 pm

Oh Cola, I am always very much here for stories about dolphin sex…

That is an amazing experience! I’m so envious of all your dolphin encounters. Being in the water with them must be magical. Thanks for sharing this! (And I think you’ll also enjoy Pod’s main character Ea’s ‘oh god here we go again another orgy’ eye roll at the beginning of the novel.)


Laline Paull 12.19.22 at 2:39 pm

It is a joyous thing to connect with dolphin sex encounters. There might be a niche marketing angle but I am not going there. Yet. There are scientists of the female reproductive structure of dolphins, who discover them to be spiral in shape, hence another descriptor in the book. I remain all too interested in this kind of stuff.


Maria 12.20.22 at 6:44 pm

Laline, I’d forgotten the use of spiral in the book, including as a derogatory term for female dolphins.

Anyway, there can never be too much dolphin friskiness or general joy.

Comments on this entry are closed.