Tag Archives: Newfoundland

The Fortunate Brother by Donna Morrissey: Loose lips sink ships

Cover imageDonna Morrissey’s new novel comes with a hearty endorsement from one of my favourite authors, Ron Rash, who’s dubbed it ‘one of the very best novels I have read in years’. It had caught my eye even before I’d seen the press release but after reading that how could I resist? Attentive readers may have noticed that this is the second Rash endorsement I’ve fallen for recently. He was pretty keen on The Barrowfields too. Set in Newfoundland, The Fortunate Brother is the story of a murder which sets the small fishing village in which it takes place abuzz with speculation.

Kyle Now is not at all sure what he’ll do with his future. He has a university place but is unwilling to turn his back on his family, still reeling from the loss of his brother in an accident on the oil rigs. His father spends much of his time in a drunken stupor, his sister has taken off backpacking in Africa and his mother is undergoing treatment for breast cancer. Kyle is shouldering this heavy burden when Clar Gillard’s body is washed up, thought to be drowned then found to be stabbed. This is a community where nothing goes unnoticed or undiscussed. Soon the village is rife with gossip about possible culprits, fingers pointing every which way from Clar’s wife, who he frequently abused, to Kyle’s father, known to detest Clar, to Kyle, himself, beaten by Clar the night of his killing. Over the next few days, Kyle finds himself questioned by the police, stumbling over evidence and trying to keep his father’s head above water as they both face his mother’s operation. Kyle has his suspicions about the identity of the murderer but unlike the rest of the village he knows when to keep his mouth shut.

Tensions run high almost to the end of Morrissey’s taut atmospheric novel. Secrets are plentiful and well-guarded. I guessed the perpetrator correctly early on but that didn’t stop me from changing my mind right up until their identity was revealed.  The Now family’s desperate grief is palpable in Morrissey’s depictions of a father unable to talk about his son’s death and a mother patiently working her way through her pain alone. Caught in the middle, Kyle’s angry struggle to protect both parents is both poignant and compellingly convincing. The portrayal of one half of a community unable to keep its mouth shut while the other seems incapable of keeping anything but shtum might seem too convenient in another setting but here in a remote village where ‘everyone was your brother or aunt or cousin or neighbour and they knew your dead like they knew their own’ it seems entirely plausible. Morrissey’s writing is admirable clipped yet vividly evocative of its setting: the landscape and weather are punishing, spoken of as if each were a person with a fickle power over the inhabitants. If The Fortunate Brother is anything to go by, Morrissey and Rash are a fine match: if you like one, I’d be surprised if you didn’t like the other.

Blasts from the Past: River Thieves by Michael Crummey (2001)

Cover imageThis is the latest in a series of occasional posts featuring books I read years ago about which I was wildly enthusiastic at the time, wanting to press a copy in as many hands as I could.

I went through a phase of reading novels about Native Americans of which Michael Crummey’s debut was one of the best. That particular interest had been sparked by several holidays in the American South West.  I remember, vividly, driving through the Arizonan desert marvelling at the landscape while listening to reggae on the Navajo radio station, something for which they have a passion. Sadly we’d missed a Toots and the Maytals gig the previous year in Santa Fe by just a few days.

River Thieves is set about as far from New Mexico as where I live in the UK. It’s the story of the extinction of a Newfoundland tribe – the Beothuk – in the early nineteenth century. I no longer remember as much about the novel’s story as I would like but a quick Google trawl reminded me that Crummey uses four characters to unfold this miserable tale of atrocity: a fisherman who loathes the Beothuk, his more tolerant son, their strong-minded housekeeper and a British naval officer assigned to investigate rumours of outrages perpetrated against the tribe. Two expeditions are launched, both involving the fisherman and his son, one in search of a peaceful solution which goes horribly wrong, and the second – years later – which ends in the kidnapping of a Beothuk woman and a murder.

What struck me most about the novel was the beautiful prose in which Crummey unfolds this sad story, and the subtlety with which he handles it. Just over a year ago I read his latest novel, Sweetland, and while I enjoyed it, it was no match for River Thieves which seems overdue for a rereading. Just as well I have my old proof copy as it seems that, sadly, the novel is no longer in print in the UK. Naomi over at Consumed by Ink is a fellow fan if you’d like to read a more detailed review.

What about you, any blasts from the past you’d like to share?

Blasts from the Past: The Bird Artist by Howard Norman (1994)

Cover imageThis is the second in a series of occasional posts featuring books I read years ago about which I was wildly enthusiastic at the time, wanting to press a copy in as many hands as I could.

I remember selling Howard Norman’s lyrical The Bird Artist when E. Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News was riding high in the bestseller list – rather like Waterstones apostrophe, the ‘E’ went missing at some point. Howard’s more modestly promoted novel shared the same Newfoundland setting as Proulx’s but made comparatively little impact so here’s my chance to have another try at selling it, although I’m afraid British readers will have to resort to tracking down a second-hand copy as it seems to be out of print here.

The Bird Artist begins in 1911 with Fabian Vas’ confession that he’s murdered the village lighthouse keeper. From an early age, Fabian took refuge from his parents’ unhappy marriage in drawing the birds of Witless Bay at which he is extraordinarily talented and eventually makes his living.  Aged fifteen he’s seduced by the hard-drinking, straight-talking Margaret, four years his senior. Determined to tear her son away from the woman who turns out to have been her rival in love, Fabian’s mother arranges for him to marry a distant cousin, taking advantage of her husband’s absence while he earns extra money to pay for the wedding to take up with the lighthouse keeper. On his return, the Witless Bay gossips soon make clear what’s been going on setting the stage for a tale of betrayal and revenge.

Norman’s writing is gorgeously poetic. His descriptions of Fabian’s drawings are exquisite while the bleak Newfoundland landscape is vividly summoned up as a backdrop to this dramatic tale. Witless Bay is stuffed full of eccentric characters, many of whom have a touch of Under Milk Wood about their names. I remember finding Howard’s strange, almost fairy-tale world coupled with the beauty of his writing utterly entrancing. When The Museum Guard was published a few years later I got my hands on it as soon as I could but, sadly, it was no match for The Bird Artist and I haven’t had the heart to try another book by Norman since.

A quick google search tells me that you should be able to pick up a second-hand copy if I’ve convinced you. The jacket I’ve chosen to illustrate this post is from the American edition which suits it far better than my old hardback’s cover.

What about you, any blasts from the past you’d like to share?

Sweetland: No man is an island

Cover imageQuite 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.

A World Elsewhere: an unexpected treat

A gloomy weather weekend, a suddenly free Sunday and no Scandi-crime distractions on TV Cake at the Pythouse caferesulted in more reading this weekend than I’d expected. We did manage to meet a friend for lunch at the Pythouse but the lovely gardens were a bit too soggy for any prolonged wandering. A slice of their Ginger Beer and Lime cake provided a bit of compensation.

Cover imageI’d pulled a Wayne Johnston’s A World Elsewhere of the TBR shelves on Friday but without much enthusiasm. I remembered The Colony of Unrequited Dreams as a bit of a plod but given that both Howard Norman and Annie Proulx rate Johnston highly I thought I’d try again and it paid off. The author’s note prefacing the novel tells us that it was inspired by the Vanderbilts’ fantastical mansion, Biltmore, but that the fictional Vanderluydens bear no resemblance to the Vanderbilts who would no doubt be suing for libel otherwise. Set in the nineteenth century, it’s the story of Landish Druken, determined not to enter the family sealing firm, and Van Vanderluyden, son of the wealthiest man in America, who he meets at Princeton. The two form an odd and somewhat dysfunctional friendship. Landish is sent home to Newfoundland in disgrace when Van betrays him after he refuses to move to Van’s North Carolina estate and there adopts a little boy, Deacon, orphaned as a consequence of his own father’s bravery and Landish’s father’s mercenary negligence. Reduced to penury, Landish resorts to contacting Van who eventually and grudgingly offers him work tutoring his daughter at the grandiose Vanderland where delusions run riot.

The biggest surprise about this novel was that it had me sniggering and chortling from the start. Wordplay is Landish’s speciality and the novel is stuffed full of it. He uses it to explain the world to Deacon instructing him in the ‘star-bored bow’ on the voyage from Newfoundland to New York which lets other passengers know that you’re bored with looking at the stars. ‘Make fun’ is to make love for which men need ‘Dick and the happy couple’. Even Landish’s name is an anagram. There’s tragedy as well as comedy and things come a little unstuck at the end but it’s a hugely entertaining novel which at times put me in mind of a mix of John Irving and T C Boyle at his best. Coincidentally the aforementioned Pythouse is close to Fonthill Gifford the site of William Beckford’s mansion, Fonthill Abbey, easily a worthy rival to Vanderland. So ridiculously ambitious was it that it fell down. Twice.

Both Landish’s father and Van would have been good candidates for the Ten Worst Dads in Books list except that …. well, you’ll have to read the book. The list ranges from King Lear to Kevin’s dad in Lionel Shriver’s novel but Humbert Humbert tops it, having inveigled himself into the position of Lolita’s stepdad. At last – a counterbalance to that tired old wicked stepmother cliché.