The Whole Singing Ocean by Jessica Moore

The Whole Singing Ocean weaves abuse on board a school ship known as L’Ecole en Bateau with parallel stories in the author’s family. The ship operated in the Mediterranean and across the Atlantic from 1969 until 2002 and offered alternative learning. For many of the 400 boys and sixty girls who sailed on the ship, however, it was a venue for sexual abuse perpetrated by Leonid Kameneff, a former child psychotherapist and owner of the school, and other adults. Authorities ignored years of allegations by former students. Finally, in 2013, Kameneff was sentenced to twelve years in prison. Two other staff served lesser sentences.

Framed as a long poem, the stories unfold partly in prose form and include memoir and investigative documenting. The narrative is non-linear. As Moore says,

Lines go blurry. Story swerves

And then you have to

sidle up to it, just like a scared

animal don’t

look it in the eye.

The narrator visits an old friend, a boat builder who had been a child on the ship. The builder has always claimed he wasn’t in the inner circle, he never saw it, it never happened to him. The narrator probes and finds:

This story unfolding at the rate that I write

Each of us––story, boat builder, me––just keeping up

No that’s not true. The story has no effort

The story has no imperative

(Or does it?) 

As she continues to investigate, the narrator wonders, “What is it that compels me?” The answer is revealed in the abuse both she and her mother suffered. The story does have its own imperative. It’s a story that won’t go away.

“It’s in the simple words where the horror lies.”

For this reviewer it is the understated way Moore reveals the abuse that is most powerful, stating there is “nothing so horrifying as something different in the shape of someone you know.” And Moore employs rich metaphors and imagery. The ocean where cold deep layers rise to the top during the Nortada winds, like her own “rich inward dark.” The gyre of ocean plastics is toxic waste like what abuse sufferers carry within. Whale “song can go on for over an earthly year” …

and then there you are

just you and the whale

With her you are the vast mirroring sea. You are

the whole singing ocean. You are beheld

held in that eye and you 

are whole 

Moore questions who owns the story of the boat builder, the libertine vision of freedom espoused by the Ecole, her mother’s story, her own? How do abused victims hold both the horror and the joy of life?

See also  The Devil to Pay: An Inspector Green Mystery by Barbara Fradkin

The Whole Singing Ocean is an evocative and challenging read.


Jessica Moore is the author of a collection of poems, Everything, now (Brick Books, 2012), and the translator for Mend the Living (Talonbooks, 2016), a translation of the novel by Maylis de Kerangal, which was longlisted for the 2016 Man Booker International Prize and won the Wellcome Book Prize in 2017. Moore’s writing has also appeared recently in BOMBCanadian ArtArcCV2The New QuarterlyCarouselThe Volta and The Antigonish Review. Moore lives in Toronto, ON.

  • PUBLISHER: Nightwood Editions; 2020
  • Paperback: 192 pages
  • ISBN: 9780889713789

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About the Reviewer: Patricia Sandberg escaped a law career and became a writer. Her short stories have been shortlisted in competitions, published at The Cabinet of Heed and in the Lit Mag Love Anthology. She is hard at work on a World War I historical novel. Her 2016 award-winning, nonfiction book Sun Dogs and Yellowcake: Gunnar Mines, a Canadian Story is about life in a uranium mine in northern Canada during the height of the Cold War.

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