The Pull of the Ocean, by Jean-Claude Mourlevat

The Pull of the Ocean, by Jean-Claude Mourlevat (published in French in 1999, Delacourt translated edition 2006, YA, 190 pp)

In this reimagining of the story of Tom Thumb, seven brothers leave their miserable home and their unpleasant parents and set out to find the ocean. The are led by the seventh son, Yann--the little one, the tiny child who never grew. The brothers have no money, no food, and no clear sense of what will become of them. But Yann, even though he cannot speak, tells them to keep heading west...and at last, they reach the ocean.

The story is told from multiple points of view, as all the players in this journey tell their view of what happens. The six older brothers all have their time as narrators, but they are joined by the truck driver who gives them a lift, the student on the train, the crabby old woman who watches them pass, and many more. And this lack of clear narration gives a surreal feeling to the story--nothing much happens (until the end), but many people are present in small happenings...

The one point of view we never see is that of Yann, himself, sweet-smiled and chubby handed, yet unpleasantly (???) or perhaps protectively (???) manipulative. It is his character, his motivations, his strangeness, that are the most intriguing parts of the book. Or the most frustrating parts of the book, depending on what sort of reader you are.

The Pull of the Ocean won the Prix Sorcieres (the French Newbery equivalent), and also the Batchelder Award for best translated book. I agree, it's a very good book--interesting, intelligent, vividly memorable. I found it a gripping read. I appreciated the writing. It was a fascinating premise, well-executed, although with disturbing elements. But I'm pretty sure I'll never want to re-read it (mainly because I was never able to develop a truly satisfactory relationship with any of the characters), and I am having a hard time figuring out who exactly I'd recommend it to.

My 9 year old--no. He wouldn't appreciate the wide range of adult narrators, and would want more story. Defiantly a YA or higher book.

My husband (currently reading Neil Gaiman/Kurt Vonnegut/Michael Chabon)--no. I don't think he'd find it that interesting.

My local children's librarian--no. It seems too surreal for her taste.

Readers of literary fantasy--um...Yann's ability to communicate telepathically pushes this into fantasy, as does the sense that he is otherworldly in general. But there is much more gritty reality here than there is fantasy, so I'll go with "no." Although it could well be a "perhaps."

Readers of this blog in general--no. I'm hesitant to make a blanket statement of recommendation for a book I'm not sure will be enjoyed by that many people.

Readers of fairy tale retellings--perhaps, although the Tom Thumb story doesn't actually have much to do with the particulars of the story. It's more an evocation.

So after much thought, I have decided that I would feel comfortable recommending this one to those who like dark and surreal short stories.

Most of the other mentions of this that I found on-line were short paragraphs expressing vague confusion; Becky, of Becky's Book Reviews, goes into greater detail.


  1. A friend sent me this a year or so ago and I read it--I agree with your assessment of who would and (mostly) who wouldn't like it. It's poetic, but not the most appealing story in the world.

  2. I'm intrigued, though. One to borrow from the library, perhaps.


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