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Category Archive for 'Canada'

With a poet’s sensitivity to words and images, and a ballad-singer’s awareness of cadences and narrative tension, Michael Crummey creates a rich novel of Newfoundland from the nineteenth century through World War I. Deftly combining the brutal realities of subsistence fishermen and farmers with the mythic tales that give hope to their lives, he traces the lives of two families through six generations in Paradise Deep and the Gut, rural areas worlds away from life in St. John’s. With its huge scope in time and its limited scope in location, the novel straddles the line between the epic and the comic epic, honoring the characters’ resilience as they struggle to survive during times of extreme privation (and six months of nearly paralyzing winter), while also celebrating the stories and long-held myths which give interest and even hope to their lives. The individual stories of the two main families over six generations here are complex, and two helpful genealogies at the beginning of the book may become well-worn as the reader tries to keep the characters all straight. The novel should appeal to those who enjoy historical family sagas.

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It’s always fun to reread a novel that was a favorite fifteen years ago and discover that it’s just as much fun the second time around. Winner of both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award in 1994, The Shipping News is set primarily in Newfoundland, the ancestral home of Quoyle, a widower from New York, and his aunt, Agnis Hamm, who return to Newfoundland with Quoyle’s two young daughters to try to create new lives. Quoyle, with minimal experience as a newspaper man in New York, gets a job at the local newspaper, the Gammy Bird, at Killick Claw, recording the weekly shipping news, doing features on visiting ships, and covering local car wrecks. Life in Killick Claw is often bleak, and its population must deal with violent storms, winters lasting six months, few connections to the outside world, and sudden death at sea, all of which Proulx describes in vivid and moving passages. But survival in this world also inspires kinship among its residents and a kind of dark-humored resignation which is even more vividly depicted.

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Eleven years after the publication of Fugitive Pieces, her only other novel (and winner of the Orange Prize), Anne Michaels has published a monumental philosophical novel which is also exciting to read for its characters and their conflicts. Complex and fully integrated themes form the superstructure of the novel in which seemingly ordinary people deal with issues of life and death, love and death, the primacy of memory, the search for spiritual solace, and the integrity of man’s relationships with the earth and the water that makes the earth habitable. The first part deals with the excavation of Abu Simbel and its relocation above the cliffs when Lake Nasser was created. The second with the St. Lawrence Seaway and the dispossessions that caused as a new lake was formed, and the third with the rebuilding of Warsaw after World War II. Michaels’s talent as a poet is obvious in her gorgeous ruminations about the meaning of love and life, and in her evocative, unique imagery, but the beauty of the language is matched by the richness of the novel’s underlying concepts, which give depth and significance to this challenging and satisfying novel.

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Alexander MacDonald, the narrator of this warm and ennobling family saga, comments to his brother that “Talking about history is not like living it…Some people have more choice than others.” And there, in a nutshell, is the essence of this tender generational novel. The MacDonalds are, in many ways, an “ordinary” family on Cape Breton, but MacLeod creates a history for them so alive that the reader experiences it, too, feeling their sorrow and joy, admiring their pluck and independence, and celebrating their loyalty and bravery as they make the hard choices their lives require. They become heroes to us not because they have performed unusual feats but because they have achieved nobility within the collective memory of their own family. The book pulses with heart, an unforgettable novel by a writer who is so precise in his structure and word choice that in his entire career he has produced only this one novel and fourteen short stories published in two extraordinary collections. (At the top of my All-Time Favorites List.)

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