Sweetland by Michael Crummey: No man is an island

Cover image 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.

7 thoughts on “Sweetland by Michael Crummey: No man is an island”

  1. Interesting. I live in Canada and like you I read and loved River Thieves as well as a collection of short stories. I have Galore but have not read it. I heard Crummey speak at our writer’s festival last fall and this book did sound good. What surprised me is that he spoke of writing River Thieves as having been a very negative experience and that he felt Galore was the book he was “born” to write. I was a bit surprised by his reflections on his own work, but enjoyed seeing him all the same.

    1. That’s so interesting. I wonder why he felt that way, and how his feelings about writing Sweetland compare – all three novels are very different from each other. I’m glad that I read it having been a little put off by Galore. Such a strong sense of place.

      1. I don’t know what his reasons are, I just remember being surprised by his negative feelings to a book I loved so much (I have even given it as well received gifts). His interview was primarily to promote Sweetland of course. He said the inspiration came from a community he visited while taking part in some kind of literary cruise trip around Newfoundland. He also said that once he had the story, the writing went so smoothly that his wife and children did not even know he was working on it. It was a fascinating interview, just as glimpse into a writer’s process and the way his view of his work can differ from that of the reader.

        1. I gave it to my father the Christmas after I read it – I always gave him the cream of my reading year’s crop – and he rated it very highly, too. I hope you plan to read Sweetland. I’d be interested to hear what you think if you do, and thanks for sharing the interview.

  2. I’ve just finished this and returned to enjoy your splendid review again. I did enjoy it – such a vivid and atmospheric novel and the ending was clever and unnerving. Inevitably, with a book that chooses such a Robinson Crusoe theme, there are longeurs and it took me a while to get into it. But I ended up admiring its ambition and integrity very much.

    1. Susan Osborne

      Thank you, Victoria. Yes, it’s a very impressive novel – just that quibble about length but I think we’ve had this conversation about other books!

  3. Pingback: River Thieves by Michael Crummey | A Life In Books

Leave a comment ...

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: