“On Canada’s Atlantic coast at the edge of the great Newfoundland fishing banks of the 1950s, Sylvanus Now is a handsome and wilful fisherman. His youthful desires are simple: he wants a suit to lure a girl—the fine-boned beauty Adelaide—and he knows exactly how much fish he has to catch to pay for it. Adelaide, however, has other dreams. She longs to escape the sea, the fish, and the stultifying community, but her need for refuge from her own troubled family leads her to Sylvanus and life in the neighbouring port.”
This book is a love letter to the Newfoundland of the 1950’s. It’s the first in a trilogy that I will definitely be reading all of. Evocative and heartbreaking, it is a character driven novel that also does a beautiful job of highlighting how individuals were affected by the cataclysmic changes that were forced upon them by the outside world. Foreign trawlers and the advent of modern industrial factories robbed simple fishermen of their livelihood. Sylvanus and Addie are at the center of this novel and they are unique and intriguing characters. All of the personalities in this novel are so distinctive and the setting is beautifully atmospheric. Even though the novel is not big on plot, and a bit tedious at times, there is an earthiness and everyday drama to it that I really enjoyed. According to reviews, apparently the pacing picks up in the later books, especially in The Fortunate Brother which ended up being a mystery set in the Alberta oil fields.
The titles in the trilogy in order are:
What They Wanted
The Fortunate Brother
Note: when reading the Newfoundland dialect, I found it helpful to know that b’ye means ‘boy’ or ‘buddy’, not goodbye.
I’s the b’y that builds the boat
And I’s the b’y that sails her
I’s the b’y that catches the fish
And brings them home to Liza.
Wayne Johnston has been an author on my radar to read since his most popular novel The Colony of Unrequited Dreams about Newfoundland was published. Unbeknownst to me, when I chose this latest of his novels to begin with, it actually completes his Newfoundland Trilogy with The Custodian of Paradise in between.
As historical fiction, this trilogy tells a social and political tale of a nation as it grows and becomes part of Canada. This final instalment has a compelling opening scene where a kid comes home from school during the first snowstorm of the year to find the door locked, the car gone, and his parents vanished. How Ned, an only child, copes with this weird event, become the foundation of the story and echoes throughout.
The author has some very clear themes about the possibility of healing from tragic and mysterious circumstances–how one can cope and perhaps overcompensate for a rough start, and how family secrets can undermine an otherwise firm foundation. Can a personality be warped by loss and is there any hope for redemption? Echoing the title, motifs of first snow (obliteration) and last light (impending darkness) reverberate.
I must say that though the writing was beautiful and I was interested in the outcome, the novel felt a bit overwritten and moved very slowly at times. And I didn’t find much redemption in the ending–though surprising and clever, it left me feeling a bit bleak and wondering about the point of it all.
Surely you have also experienced this, but I love it when seemingly random forces conspire to all point in the same direction. Last year a gracious publisher replaced a book I had purchased which was missing the last 30 pages. For my troubles I was also granted the choice of a free book. I chose ‘February’ by Lisa Moore because the author was unknown to me and I liked the cover and the story line. Recently taking up the challenge to read books already residing on my own shelf (New Year’s Resolution), I threw ‘February’ into my bag for a 2 1/2 week trip to Australia and the South Pacific. While on the trip my sister-in-law wrote that she had just finished the book and was deeply touched by it. At the same time I discovered that it had recently won the Canada Reads competition! So I felt very affirmed in my choice of what to read next!
In 1982, off the coast of Newfoundland, the oil rig Ocean Ranger sank, losing 84 souls in a night storm. ‘February’ is the story of Helen O’Mara, one of those left behind when her husband Cal drowns. This fictional account focuses on one woman’s struggle and loss, raising four children on her own. It is beautifully written, raw and heartfelt; so honest and down to earth and never errs on the side of sentimentality. If good literature is meant to get you inside another person’s skin, then this one hits the mark. Though not plot-driven, the book is very human and real, and uplifting even though much of it deals with grief. I liked the skillful way in which Moore beautifully captures small ordinary moments. Highly recommended, a very enjoyable read.