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Like a rock: Newfoundland tale adds to province's CanLit canon

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Since the mid 1990s, Michael Crummey's poetry, short stories, and novels have been steadily revealing the contours of Newfoundland's distinctive genius: its genealogy and geography; its haunted history; its troubled ancestry; its riddled relations with "away," the mainland. More recently, he's delved into the many-edged catastrophe of its failed fishery, its redolent idioms and pungent syntax -- and, above all, its people.

Sweetland, Crummey's fourth novel, gives us at once one of his most memorable characters, that character's equally memorable home ground, and the inextricable relations between them. The novel begins and ends with the widening significance of Moses Sweetland's name and place being one and the same.

At the novel's outset Sweetland, 69, is one of two islanders resisting the government's generous buyout offer to the community. When the other holdout signs on, Moses's position becomes increasingly untenable. Crummey renders Moses's intricate web of relations with the community in a choreographed pattern designed not to follow chronology or sequence as much as to reveal the surprising layers of significance -- both to Moses and to readers -- of the powerfully charged familial histories on the island.

Sweetland opens twice: with Moses rescuing a lifeboat full of Sri Lankan refugees adrift in the fog, and with Moses being visited by a government agent intent on persuading him to agree to leave Sweetland. The novel's ensuing narrative progress unfolds and folds back on itself as past and present stories and strands merge and separate, recreating the island's and Moses's complex history as one.

As Moses's steadfast refusal underwrites the narrative and informs all of his dealings with his community, the novel also subtly and steadily merges Moses's consciousness with the wider external forces that drive the community; by novel's end, it has become significantly and strikingly unclear where Moses's fantasies end and reality begins. Relationships that had seemed casual, idiosyncratic, or incidental become far more fraught. Alleged accidents are reframed as suicides, connections among the island's residents become more charged, and Moses himself learns more than he could have imagined about his origins and ancestry.

Aside from the compelling portrait of Moses and his relations, the novel gathers much of its formidable imaginative strength from its loving and detailed gaze on the landscape of the island: lighthouse and church, cove and coastline, fish and sparse wildlife, the implacable weather, fog and snow, heat and mist. As Moses traverses the island on foot, at sea, and on his quad, a lifetime of familiarity emerges with every step, every wave across the bow, so that the motivation for his refusal to leave, never explicitly named, becomes all too apparent.

Crummey's loving and careful attention also renders surrounding members of the community in vital detail; because he never succumbs to the temptation to create stereotypes or caricatures, these heartfelt recreations become substantial figures in Sweetland's -- the character's and the island's -- interconnected histories. And first and last, Moses Sweetland's spoken language, like that of the other islanders -- at once laconic and rich with its own plangent off-key music -- rings true to its origins.

Over the last 30 years, Newfoundland has laid increasingly powerful claim to its unique place in the Canadian imagination. Thankfully for readers everywhere in Canada and abroad, Crummey's contributions to that claim continue to grow in scope.

Like any very good novel, Sweetland continues to resonate just offstage, in its own dream chamber, long after first reading, calling for a second performance. This reader, for one, has gratefully accepted the invitation.

 

Canadian literature scholar Neil Besner is provost and vice-president, academic and international at The University of Winnipeg.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 23, 2014 G6

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Updated on Saturday, August 23, 2014 at 9:01 AM CDT: Formatting.

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