This one has been on my to-read list for awhile — a lot of people raved about Gerard Collins’s first book, Moonlight Sketches, which won the 2012 Ches Crosbie Barristers Award for Fiction — in other words, it was judged by many smart people to be the best work of fiction published in Newfoundland in 2012. However, Moonlight Sketches was a short-story collection, and I have a well-known history of being unable to appreciate short stories as well as I should, so I decided to wait for Collins’s novel, which was released late last year to great critical acclaim.
Finton Moon is a beautifully-written coming-of-age story set in outport Newfoundland in the 1970s — an in-between era when communities like the fictional town of Darwin in which the story takes place are connected with the modern world by highways and television yet still have a sense of being stuck in the past. That setting, augmented by the brilliance of Collins’s writing, gives the book the sense of being both deeply rooted in the real world yet also set in an otherworldly place. I suppose the book could best be described as “Newfoundland magic realism” since many of the things that happen — primarily Finton’s mysterious ability to heal his own and other people’s wounds and even, perhaps, to raise the dead — are beyond the realm of strict realism. Yet places, people, conversations in the novel are as real and believable as the people, the scene and the snatches of overheard conversation at your own neighbourhood corner store.
The novel follows Finton from childhood, when he first discovers his strange ability to heal, up to young adulthood when he graduates from high school and leaves Darwin behind — forever, he hopes. The novels is richly populated with memorable characters — Finton’s family, his friends and enemies, the girl he loves and the one who loves him, the mysterious old crone who watches him with perhaps eerie interest and her beautiful but unbalanced daughter who gives Finton his sexual initiation. No matter who he interacts with, Finton never feels that he belongs in Darwin: in the end he is driven to leave in hopes of finding a place to belong, yet realizes that he can never fully escape the place and the people he came from.
A familiar enough conclusion for a coming-of-age novel, especially one about a bright and talented kid in a small and insular community. Yet over and above the magic-realism twists, Collins does something special with this material. My only criticism of this book — and I’m not sure whether it is a criticism — is that while I’ve heard others say that they raced through it and couldn’t put it down, I found Finton Moon a slow read, a book to savour rather than one to devour. I could put it down, and did, coming back again and again to dip into the world of Darwin. I think this is probably due to the fact that for me it was a book driven almost entirely by character and setting rather than by plot. While there are mysteries to be solved in Darwin — including a murder that haunts Finton’s family throughout his adolescence — the pleasure, for me, was never in reading to see how things would turn out, but rather to see how Finton himself would turn out — whether he would survive growing up in Darwin, and where life might take him afterwards.
This is a rich, rewarding novel that is well worth the read.