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  • Domenico Di Rosa

The Dolphin by Susan Clegg – A Book Review

The Dolphin, Susan Clegg’s debut novel, was released 5 July 2023 by Linen Press. Seamlessly interweaving the narratives of three generations of the Lambert family from the late 1930s to the early 1970s, the novel is mainly set in a small town south of Sheffield. Clegg explores the damaging pressures of social expectations around respectability on the nonconforming individual, allowing us to discreetly witness the ways in which external and inner constraints are challenged to find moments of contentment.

The first narrative is set just before WWII and centres around Larry Lambert’s disappointing life spent building houses and feeling constrained by a regrettable marriage to the rigorous Rosemary. During a seaside vacation, Larry meets a young gay man on a boat named ‘The Dolphin’. He is caught by surprise which triggers in him both an offence to the man’s advances and a realisation of his own sexuality. Larry’s narrative includes some of my most favourite moments from the novel, where Clegg sensibly and realistically describes the potential of a queer connection as Larry contemplates Will’s palm, ‘the roughness of his fingertips, the dirt under his nails’. Overall, Larry’s decisions are understandably influenced by the historical context he belongs to, meaning he is not allowed to openly express his queer love without being cut off from society. He therefore materialises the memory of this intimate moment by building a pub named ‘The Dolphin’ on a hill that looks over the sea, keeping his queer identity alive at home and ‘hidden’. I felt both a degree of melancholy but also great compassion when reading Larry’s fixation with keeping the pub in order, because it revealed how aware he was about the unlikelihood of a queer future.

The second narrative revolves around Larry’s daughter Joanie, working at The Dolphin in the aftermath of the war. Following her father’s death, Joanie feels pressured by her mother to grow up quickly and ‘do her duty’ as a woman by taking charge of the family pub. Clegg’s storytelling not only gives an insight into women’s essential role in rebuilding post-war harmony, but also how they dealt with the realities of sexual emancipation. We cannot help but feel empathy for Joanie as she ventures through an infatuation while constantly feeling Rosemary’s judgemental eye over her. What I found fascinating about Joanie’s story is how common and often regrettably disheartening her relationship with her mother is, seeing how different it is from her brother’s and how this disparity affects both siblings in opposite ways. After all, Joanie’s character shows real determination to escape social conventions, yet she is depicted as being vulnerable and relatable in her unsuccessful attempts at disregarding Rosemary’s confining judgement.

The third and final narrative is set between the late 1960s and early 1970s, focusing on Larry’s granddaughter Lottie. Before her wedding, Lottie starts to dive into her family’s past, which Clegg manages to blend with her future in the conclusion of the novel. Lottie’s experience quickly becomes very familiar as she develops a fear for what is undefined. Although she initially feels more at ease in the soundness of her past life, she painfully abandons her life plans to bring The Dolphin back to its original shape. Clegg keeps us emotionally invested into Lottie’s narrative as she learns new aspects about herself. One of Lottie’s most commendable features is her perseverance given that she does not let the past define her future which appears foggy but somehow flourishing like Dan’s snowdrops, ‘reaching from under the earth’.

Moving, upsetting, and close to reality, The Dolphin elevates mundane lives to disclose how and why we take certain decisions to insure our bliss. Reading the novel has revealed how perseverance and self-determination are often opposed by social prejudice and a pre-determined past. Clegg’s alluring and flowing prose often requires the reader to fill in the gaps and interpret the characters’ decisions according to their resoluteness and the historical context they belong to. The Dolphin displays different degrees of coping with social prejudice. Larry’s repressed queer desire is narrated through fleeting gestures and synergies, remaining hidden yet somehow realised within his pub. Joanie’s challenge to her mother’s observant rigour leads her suffer under the arduous but necessary choices she must make. Finally, Lottie is able to abandon her fear of the undisclosed by letting go of her past and by not allowing it to shape her unsettled yet promising future.

The Dolphin was also longlisted for the Mslexia prize. It’s available online and at La Biblioteka for Sheffield locals.


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