Cover image for The sooterkin
The sooterkin
Gilling, Tom.
Personal Author:
First American edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Viking, 2000.

Physical Description:
212 pages ; 23 cm
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The action in Tom Gilling's wickedly funny, magical novel, The Sooterkin, revolves around the bizarre birth of a child who appears to be more seal than human. As the extraordinary news spreads through the penal colony of Van Diemen's Land (present-day Tasmania) during the winter of 1821, mystified residents flock to investigate. The local reverend hypothesizes a virgin birth, but the town's resident science "expert" suspects that the pup may be akin to the mysterious sooterkin-a monstrous, mythical creature born to women in Holland. In spite of its unusual physiology, the child's mother and brother accept the family's newest member and protect it from the clutches of outsiders, who want to exploit the sooterkin baby for profit. In the tradition of The Secret of Roan Inish, The Sooterkin is the perfect summertime fairy tale.

Author Notes

Tom Gilling , born in England, emigrated to Australia at the age of twenty-two. His journalism has appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald, The Australian, The Bulletin , and Rolling Stone . The Sooterkin , his first novel, received universal Australian acclaim and has been short-listed for the prestigious Vance Palmer Fiction Award. He lives in Sydney, Australia.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

In 1821, in Hobart City on the convict colony of Van Diemen's Land (now Tasmania), Sarah Dyer gives birth to her second child, a mysterious creature who greatly resembles a baby seal. (A local scientist, believes the creature to be a sooterkin, a misshapen dwarf rumored to have been born to Dutch women a century before.) Sooterkin or seal, Arthur becomes his older brother Ned's best friend and a source of income to his poverty-stricken family, as residents are happy to pay for the privilege of simply observing Arthur. But a convict colony is a dangerous place, and Arthur disappears, leading Ned on a dangerous rescue journey. Gilling's first novel received praise in Australia and was compared favorably to both Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Peter Carey. Unfortunately, the charm of the novel will largely escape most American readers, despite the well-drawn, quirky characters and insight into the "Wild West" history of Van Diemen's Land. Nonetheless, this is a worthwhile purchase for large fiction collections, particularly those supporting Australian studies. --Nancy Pearl

Publisher's Weekly Review

On July 14, 1821, on a small island off the coast of Australia, Sarah Dyer gives birth to a "thing the size of a weasel, wet and slippery and covered in fur." Rumor spreads that the creature is a sooterkin--"a monstrous animal, with a hooked snout, fiery, sparkling eyes, a long neck and the stump of a tail"--but closer inspection reveals the newborn as none other than a seal pup, whom Sarah names Arthur. In Australian journalist Gilling's droll and engaging first novel, a bestseller Down Under, the seal pup's appearance--while cause for wonder--is not quite cause for alarm. The town's minister, Mr. Kidney, writes about the event: "we are a colony, so inured to the Unnatural that the Natural itself seems wondrous and terrible." This imaginative story doesn't confine itself to a single narrator or hero; rather, the entire population of the island acts as the true protagonist. Included in the community of convicts, debtors, itinerants and rebels are the drunken Mr. Kidney, nursing hopes that his service will cancel his debts, and the midwife Mrs. Jakes, who was expelled from England for performing illegal abortions. Sarah Dyer is a convict, and her older son, Ned, is a talented pickpocket and petty thief. But when someone captures Arthur, the long-dormant moral outrage of the island is at last incited, and a search team is sent out to recover the pup before he's killed for his pelt or sold to the circus. Gilling's island is a Dickensian, scatological, violent world in which people are as likely to steal as to pay, to cheat as to pray. Shifting points of view and the plot's decentered trajectory make for a sometimes disjointed read, but this unlikely setting acts like a hothouse for the miraculous, showcasing people's unusual and even heartwarming ability to embrace the strange. (June) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

The unusual title is only a hint of what is to come in this extraordinary book. In 1821, a village in Australia is thrown into shock when a woman gives birth to a male childDwho resembles a seal pup more than a human infant. While the local authorities try to determine if the birth is authentic or an attempt to con the community, the mother names the newborn Arthur and treats him as if he were any other child. His older brother, Ned, is entrusted with daily visits to the ocean shore where the pup can splash and frolic. Father William spends most of his time in the local pubs, figuring out how he can work this situation to his best advantage. First-time novelist Gilling shows a sharp and clever sense of humor as he introduces us to this microcosm of quirky characters. First published in Australia to great acclaim, this fantastical story is not going to appeal to all readers but should find a following in the libraries where authors like Alice Hoffman, Sherman Alexie, or Gabriel Garc!a M rquez are popular.DKaren Traynor, Sullivan Free Lib., NY (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.