Told across key years in the lives of the same family over three generations, Susan Clegg’s The Dolphin is a book which catches you unaware, giving its secrets up carefully in a manner which reflects how closely they are guarded by those who keep them.
In 1937, Larry Lambert is conflicted – his life unsatisfactory. This is relayed in a number of ways which set the tone for the book. He builds houses which make him feel constrained, his wife Rosemary sleeps with her back to him while he remains awake and anxious, and his kids are constantly fighting. For some reason he can’t explain he believes a trip to the seaside will benefit all, but especially himself. That trip will go on to shape the family for decades to come, yet no one, at least initially, fully understands why. After this trip his dream is to build a pub he names ‘The Dolphin’. He chooses a location which is fairly remote, but from which you can see the sea. It’s a place which offers hope and home for some, and provokes fear and loathing in others.
What follows is a novel which weaves together its stories quite beautifully – subtly and slowly ramping up the emotional impact to the extent that I had tears in my eyes by the final few pages, something which caught me completely unaware. Over the book you become emotionally invested in the characters and their circumstances. The Dolphin also captures the social expectations and prejudices of each particular time and how they shape and constrain lives, and sometimes ruin them.
This is storytelling by stealth in that you are absolutely invested in the central characters’ stories, but you never feel you are being manipulated or coerced into feeling a certain way. Nothing is explicitly explained and you have to read not only between the lines, but also behind them. The Dolphin is an exemplary piece of writing where each story, and the reader, is handled with care but you only realise that once you have turned the final page. Once you do you immediately want to read it all over again.