The novel's central character is Desmond Howl, a reclusive former rock star who has lived in virtual seclusion from the world since the death of his brother Danny in a car accident. Instead of engaging with the world, Howl spends all his time composing instrumental symphonies for the whales that congregate near his dilapidated seaside mansion. Howl's life is turned upside down, however, when he finds a mysterious woman named Claire asleep in his living room one morning.
The novel won the 1989 Governor General's Award for English fiction, and was a shortlisted nominee for the Stephen Leacock Award in 1990. It was also adapted into a film in 1994. Quarrington co-wrote the film's screenplay, with director Richard J. Lewis, and the Canadian indie rock band Rheostatics composed the film's soundtrack.