Quite some years ago now I read Michael Crummey’s The River Thieves while on holiday. Having thoroughly enjoyed it, I eagerly snapped up Galore when it was published but, sadly, was a little underwhelmed – it wasn’t a bad book but lacked the impact of his previous novel, at least for me. The 2011 IMPAC judges clearly disagreed: they shortlisted it. Still hopeful, I decided to give Sweetland a try. Set on the eponymous tiny island, just off Newfoundland, it tells the story of Moses Sweetland, descendent of the island’s first settlers.
Sweetland is an obdurate old man, just one of two people standing out against the resettlement package offered to the island’s inhabitants by the Canadian government. It’s an ageing population with just a few children including Jesse, Sweetland’s grand-nephew, who adores the place. Despite Sweetland’s reluctance to acknowledge it, he and Jesse share a bond that runs as deep as their mutual attachment to the island. Support for the package must be unanimous and Sweetland knows he’s the object of annoyance – anonymous letters find their way into his unlocked home, rabbits caught in the traps he sets are horribly mutilated and his landing stage is set on fire. Eventually, persuaded by his niece, Sweetland makes public his decision but tragedy strikes throwing the cards up into the air again. Obstinate to the end, Sweetland finds a way round the problem of his departure that only he could have devised.
Sweetland is as much about a passing way of life as it is about the man. As the island’s population dwindles so it becomes uneconomic to maintain the services needed by the few inhabitants left. The cod quota has made inroads into their livelihoods, young people leave and no fresh settlers arrive – yet these are people who have lived alongside each other all their lives, keeping their secrets close but helping each other through difficulties, not least the vagaries of the inhospitable climate. Crummey’s portrait of this small community is vividly evocative. His characters are strikingly drawn: the romance-reading Queenie who hasn’t left her house in years; Loveless, perhaps better named useless given his inability to do anything for himself; and, of course, Sweetland who has only left the island briefly, returning scarred and irascible. Sweetland’s sense of place is dramatic – this is an island where the weather dictates survival or not. Just one quibble, and it’s one I often have – the second part of the novel felt too long despite the suspense and tension running through it. Not a match for The River Thieves, then, but well worth reading, nevertheless.