I’ve been looking forward to reading this book for a really long time, and it did not disappoint. I picked up Martin’s last book, This Ramshackle Tabernacle, and recognized at once that I loved his writing and the themes he writes about. But it was a short story collection, and no matter how good the writer and how good my intentions, I just cannot get engaged with short stories. I’ve tried, many times, and I just have to accept this as a failing in me as a reader. So, when I heard Sam Martin was releasing a novel this year, I knew this would be my opportunity to immerse myself in his writing and enjoy what he could do.
A Blessed Snarl tells several stories, covering a year or so in the lives of a small group of people whose lives become intertwined. There’s Patrick, a Pentecostal minister returning home to Newfoundland to plant a church; Anne, his unhappy wife; Hab (yes that’s short for Habbakuk), their university-aged son; Hab’s new friend Natalie and her roommates Gerry and Lisette.
The writing is dense, very literary, and almost achingly beautiful in places. It’s the kind of book that richly rewards a careful reading: you’ll miss a lot if you skim lightly over the surface. Martin grapples with big themes: losing faith and finding it; seeking a sense of home; searching for connection and intimacy. Relationships between fathers and sons are central to most of the storylines, but so are other relationships — all those human contacts we cling to in an attempt to make sense of life’s chaos and violence.
What I love in Martin’s work is that he writes about people, places and ideas that fascinate me — and he gets them so right. Many of his characters come from a Pentecostal background, and lots of writers don’t understand the evangelical/fundamentalist Protestant mind the way Martin does. He gets all the nuances right — especially the Biblical references. A father feeling betrayed by his son would think automatically of David and Absalom, as Patrick does; a husband whose wife has left him and returned would cast himself as Hosea and his wife as Gomer. This is the kind of detail that shows a writer really understands the worldview from which he is writing — as so many Newfoundland writers do with the Irish Catholic worldview, while so few do as well writing about Protestants. Not that the Catholic perspective is absent here either — Patrick, though a Pentecostal minister, comes from an Irish Catholic background and there’s a strong streak of Catholic mysticism in his father, which comes to intrigue Hab as well. The way in which their religious views and obsessions permeate the way these characters see the world rang very true for me.
It’s not just in the area of religion that Sam Martin gets his details right. Everything in this book that was familiar to me, felt like it was depicted in vivid colour. Several of the characters live in Rabbittown, a neighbourhood in the heart of St. John’s that is too rarely celebrated in fiction — it’s trendier, in gritty urban St. John’s fiction, to have your characters living downtown, but there are few places in the city where life is as layered and rich as it is here in Rabbittown where I live, and Martin captures that perfectly. The Newfoundland landscape, both rural and urban, is very well rendered, often through the eyes of outsiders. Many of the characters are mainlanders who find themselves in Newfoundland, who react to its weather and geography and culture with fascination, suspicion, wariness and love.
I really felt immersed in this novel. It’s not impossible to find quibbles: as with any novel that has multiple points of view, I found myself more interested in some characters’ stories than in others, and there was always that urge to skip ahead and get back to the people I was curious about. Perhaps it’s because I’m closer to midlife myself that I found the story of Patrick and Anne and their floundering marriage more engaging than the lives of the younger, university-student characters, and kept wanting more about Anne and Patrick. But that doesn’t mean the other characters weren’t rewarding to read about as well; I just had to rein in a little impatience every time the point of view moved to another person. These characters’ lives are all tightly interlocked, which is another point I might quibble about if I were so inclined — there are so many interconnections that they go far beyond coincidence or even beyond the “blessed snarl” of Newfoundland culture where everyone knows and is distantly related to everyone else. There’s at least one connection, revealed late in the book, that seems far too coincidental, and it’s almost impossible to believe that the characters wouldn’t have figured it out much earlier (or maybe they did, and I was the one who was a little out of the loop). But after a couple of times early in the book when I interrupted my reading by saying, “No, there’s no way she could be the same person who … really???!!” I chose to accept this as a literary device rather than strict realism, and just went with the flow.
The fact is, I don’t want to quibble or find fault, because I was completely absorbed in this book. Often, when a book is as beautifully and carefully crafted as this one is, I find that the language is so literary that it draws attention to itself and away from character and plot, which frustrates me as a reader. In this book, the beauty of Martin’s language, the deep themes he explores, and the intensity of his writing are always in the service of the characters and their stories. They were people about whom I came to care deeply, so that it really mattered to me what happened to them. For me, that’s what matters most.