Deluded Your Sailors, by Michelle Butler Hallett

Layout 1Deluded Your Sailors is a rich, complex novel that packs a lot of story into a relatively short book — too much, perhaps, for some readers, but there’s fascinating material here. The novel tells two stories — one set in the present (sort of), the other in the early 1700s. The present-day story is set in a recognizable Newfoundland in 2009, except for the fact that Newfoundland is not a province of Canada but an independent republic. The main character here is Nichole Wright, a writer, sexual abuse survivor and bulemic whose struggle to free herself from the past runs through the modern-day plot, in which she is hired to write a play celebrating 250 years of settlement in a Newfoundland outport called Port au Mal. Nichole is only one of a large cast of characters we meet in this contemporary story, each with his or her own rich backstory. It turns out (I learned from reading another review) that several of these characters also appear in Hallett’s earlier novel, Sky Waves, which I haven’t read but now wish I had, as I often wanted to know more about these people. 

The modern-day story, fascinating as it is, is only a framing device for the historical story that takes up the larger central section of the novel. Here’s where the novel may require a little more work than many readers are willing to put in, since Hallett has chosen to tell a truly fascinating story through vignettes that move backwards and forwards in time and are told in the voices of several different narrators. Because of this, it takes awhile to piece together whose story is actually being told here, which runs the risk of some readers becoming confused and not engaging with the story. And it’s a story worth engaging with. The main character in the 1700s is, like Nichole Wright, a victim of childhood sexual abuse — a young girl on the streets of Bristol, England, disguised as a boy, kidnapped and carried on board ship by an unscrupulous sailor. Being disguised as a boy does nothing to prevent Kit from being repeatedly raped by the sailor, but it’s a disguise she clings to as she becomes, variously, cabin boy, shipwreck survivor, spy, and then captain of her own ship. 

Though I appreciated the scope of what Hallett was attempting by telling the historical story through different voices and different types of documents, I couldn’t help wishing that Kit’s story had been told as a more straightforward narrative, either in first-person or third-person, so that the focus could have been clearly on that one fascinating tale, rather than on the stories of the numerous peripheral characters. Having a large cast of interesting secondary characters may work better in the modern sections of the novel, but in the historical story, where language and setting already pose some barriers to comprehension, I couldn’t help feeling that the way in which the story was told distanced the reader a little. The reservations I had about the book may simply come down to a case of the writer trying to pack too much into the book — especially when you add to the modern-day story an immortal character who introduces an element of magic realism to the otherwise highly realistic story, creating a semi-living link between the past and present storylines. While I’m all in favour of authors making readers work a little, there’s a delicate balance to be struck there. I couldn’t help feeling in this case that in a novel of just under 300 pages, an ambitious and highly skilled writer was allowing her own literary virtuosity to distract a little from her strong characters and compelling story. 

This isn’t a quibble that every reader will share: some will enjoy the complexity of language and style as an integral part of this rich reading experience. While I might have preferred a more straightforward storytelling style in the historical portion of the novel, I was drawn into Kit Finn’s vivid world, as real and resonant as Nichole Wright’s twenty-first century Newfoundland, and found both characters sympathetic and engaging. I wish the book had been longer, with more space to develop and explore these two main characters, the worlds in which they live and the many intriguing people whose lives touch theirs.

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2 Comments

Filed under Canadian author, Fiction -- general, Fiction -- historical, Newfoundland author

2 responses to “Deluded Your Sailors, by Michelle Butler Hallett

  1. Trudy, hello.

    I read with interest your remarks on this novel. Hallett does have a way of sliding through time, as you note, and that can be a little overwhelming for some readers. You make a good point there, and at other instances in your review.

    You have reservations about Hallett’s use of various characters who are secondary. In this she follows a long line of non-mainstream novelists who let characters from the sidelines speak to give a different perspective to a central character or to events. The question of narrative control – meaning both whose POV is this, and who is in charge – occurs in her other books. There is a point to this spreading out of the narrative duties, and perhaps delving into that rather than faulting the writer would be productive. In some instances, yes, the writer is at fault.

    In _Sky Waves_ Hallett put responsibility on the intelligence of readers to construct the course of events and to imagine the state of Newfoundland as a country. There’ll be those who will refuse those tasks, those duties, and they’re certainly free to reject her work. But perhaps when you say that Hallett’s “literary virtuosity” distracts you “from her strong characters and compelling story” you are faulting her when you might ask, with some or more profit, “Is this Hallett’s error, or might this book be demanding more from me than I knew?” She might be trying for something that’s not visible to you quite yet.

    with respect,
    Jeff Bursey

    • Oh, I completely agree — it’s a very literary novel and it demands a lot of the reader. I think with literary fiction it’s always a balance between readability/plot/character on one hand, and literary skill for its own sake, which, as you point out, demands quite a bit of the reader. And readers have different preferences as to where they want a book to fall in terms of that balance. On the one hand you would have very straightforward commercial fiction, including genre fiction, no literary “tricks” at all, which a lot of readers will enjoy but others will find too dull. On the opposite extreme you have something like Infinite Jest (check out my review of that from earlier in the summer) where the literary virtuosity really IS the point. I think most literary novelists seek to fall somewhere in the middle, with a book that makes the reader work and explores various aspects of style, voice, etc., but also has a strong storyline and compelling characters that allow the reader to get “lost” in the story.

      I certainly would never dream of rejecting Hallett’s work or saying that she’s in error, or even faulting her work, really. In reviewing it I’m trying to give a sense of where, for me, it fell on that spectrum, so that other readers know what they’re getting. Do I admire her skill and ability? Absolutely. In the case of this particular novel would I have preferred to do a little less work for the sake being able to be more absorbed in the story? Yes, I think so. But that’s not a fault in the book — that’s a choice the author made, and I’m responding to the fact that for me as a reader, it didn’t fully work.

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