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Maritime fish-out-of-water tale unfolds slowly

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WHY does a middle-aged woman move from California to Cape Breton Island in the middle of winter? How will she survive the gossip and speculation of a small community where everybody knows everyone else's business?

Such is the premise of Maritime writer D.R. MacDonald's third novel, a fish-out-of-water story about loss, loneliness and sexual betrayal. MacDonald's earlier novels focus on protagonists who have returned to the island from "away."

Cape Breton Road, his acclaimed 2001 debut, recounts the story of a car thief who is deported from the United States back to his birthplace. In Lauchlin of the Bad Heart (2007), a man returns to Cape Breton after his boxing career is sidelined due to a heart ailment.

Anna From Away departs somewhat from the previous two by focusing on a female protagonist. The language differs as well; with the exception of Anna, the other characters speak in a brogue peppered with remnants of Gaelic.

At the outset, Anna flees her dissolving marriage and rents a house along the shore in Cape Seal, an isolated hamlet with few remaining inhabitants. Her arrival sets local tongues wagging, for she is an attractive artist.

Her closest neighbour is Red Murdock, a 60ish carpenter still mourning the death of his longtime girlfriend. He eventually befriends Anna and watches out for her.

So does Breagh, a charming single mom whose child was fathered by a smuggler. When a bale of marijuana washes up near Anna's house, she enlists Murdock's help.

They must then make some decisions. MacDonald alternates the voices of the main characters in vivid, cinematic prose.

A prime example is Murdock's initial impression of Anna. "[s]he sat in snow, legs tucked under a wide pad of paper in her lap, and whenever she glanced up, her hand moved in quick strokes. Her red parka was bright against the ice-flecked sea, winter-dark and restless."

The novel's first section chronicles Anna's gradual adaptation to her new surroundings; the second deals with conflicts regarding the bale of marijuana.

Interspersed are anecdotes related by Murdock's cronies at the end of several chapters. Harkening back to the past, these tidbits shed light on Murdock's upbringing.

Throughout the novel, MacDonald effectively portrays the mind of an artist. Blessed with a keen visual sense, Anna sees the potential for art-making in many aspects of her new environment -- the people, the animals, the snow, the rugged landscape and the sea.

She even searches for debris along the shore to fashion into sculptures. Soon after her arrival, she sees a dog being tossed off a bridge and becomes so obsessed with the image that she has to draw it.

In its depiction of rural life, the novel is vaguely reminiscent of Regina-based Dianne Warren's acclaimed 2010 novel, Cool Water, with its hearsay, past transgressions and tangled connections of the characters. Fans of the work of Alistair MacLeod (Island, No Great Mischief) will find a similar reverence for the landscape and people of Cape Breton.

Nonetheless, this novel may not be for everyone. The story unfolds slowly and occasionally treads water; in fact, the plot doesn't heat up until the second half.

 

Bev Sandell Greenberg is Winnipeg writer and editor.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 15, 2012 J7

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