Becoming Dinah re-imagines Moby Dick in a modern YA setting. Dinah has been brought up on a remote commune, home-educated and sheltered from society. After her parents’ messy separation, she convinces her mother to allow her to attend secondary school, with a view to university entrance. Dinah’s strange clothes earn her the nickname ‘Clothes Bank’ and lead to her feeling like an outsider. One girl however, Queenie, stands up for her, and they become firm friends, with Dinah developing a crush. Dinah’s growing feelings for Queenie end in embarrassment so severe that Dinah shaves her head and decides to run away and start afresh where she isn’t known. She leaves town with Ahab, her neighbour, who lets her drive his old campervan in search of a van that has supposedly been stolen from him, with his artificial leg inside.
Using Moby Dick as a framing device works brilliantly here as it allows de Waal to explore issues of identity and gender, whilst teasing out aspects of parental relationships, obsession, and being Other. Dinah is different to the other girls in school in many ways. She refers to herself as mixed race, she experiences bisexual feelings, adopts a non-binary personality and wants to be called Ishmael, she has lived on a commune, and her parents have split up. Ahab is also going through a time of upheaval and transition. His wife left him for Dinah’s father and he lost his leg in an accident linked to the break up. The story unfolds as the two undertake their journey, which is as much spiritual and emotional as it is physical. There’s lovely imagery of birds and feathers representing new beginnings, and Ahab and Ishmael’s journey in the Pequod turn out to be a new beginning for both.