I have a huge backlog of book reviews to post from all the books I read on vacation, but I’m going to post about the last book I read first because I’m so excited about Michael Crummey’s Sweetland, which I mostly read on the plane flying home. After Galore, I would not have believed it possible for Crummey to top his accomplishment of writing THE “great Newfoundland novel,” but I think he has at least equalled if not surpassed it with Sweetland.
Comparisons are inevitable, and instructive. Galore told the story of an isolated Newfoundland outport over a period that stretched from the early nineteenth to the early twentieth centuries. Paradise Deep, in that novel, was a community so cut off from the outside world it might as well have existed on another planet (until near the very end of the novel). Galore offered a rich tapestry of how a town like this grew, changed, suffered and struggled over the years when the cod fishery was the lifeline of thousands of such tiny communities.
Sweetland takes the story of the Newfoundland outport through the last half of the twentieth century and up into the beginning of the twenty-first, and while Galore showed us a way of life rooted in the cod fishery and based on the land, Sweetland shows us the end of that way of life. Rather than being remote from the outside world, Sweetland, a tiny island off Newfoundland’s south coast, is being absorbed into it. The community is about to be resettled — not forcibly, as with the government-driven resettlement of the 1960s, but with government support. Most of the residents want to leave the tiny, struggling outport, reduced to a skeleton like most such communities have been in the twenty years since the cod moratorium. The provincial government offers a generous resettlement package — upwards of $100,000 per household — but it comes with the same caveat that made the earlier, forced resettlements so unpopular. Everyone on the island must agree to leave, or there’ll be no resettlement package.
The title of the novel refers not just to the place but to the story’s main character: Moses Sweetland, a lifelong resident of the island nearing seventy, is one of the last few holdouts who refuse to leave. Naturally that creates resentment, and Sweetland’s neighbours pressure him to sign on along with all the others. But for reasons he can’t articulate even to himself, Sweetland doesn’t want to go.
The story unfolds over a period of about two years, while the resettlement plan comes to fruition, but the present-day chapters are interspersed with flashback chapters that paint scenes from Sweetland’s earlier life and give us a glimpse of life on the island as it used to be. The contradictions and complexities of a twenty-first century town that’s rooted in a much older way of life are perfectly echoed in this novel. Moses Sweetland engages in some of the most ancient of human activities, like hunting and cleaning the meat he eats, while at the same time getting pulled into that most modern of poignant moments: viewing tributes on the Facebook page of a dead loved one. He is a man with a foot in both worlds, unwilling or unable to move forward.
The novel is, of course, a tragedy — what else could it be, with such a backdrop? — and Sweetland is the tragic hero who pits his own will, not against the will of the gods as in the Greek tragedies, but against the equally implacable will of community and authority. As a tragic hero he is closest to King Lear, especially in the latter part of the novel, the abandoned old man raging against his fate and howling out his grief, leaving both himself and the reader unsure how mad or how sane he is. Like any good writer of tragedy, Crummey is relentless in stripping Sweetland of everything and everyone that might offer him comfort and peace, which results in a tale that is sometimes almost too painful to read, but so compelling you can’t turn away from it.
As always with Michael Crummey, language is handled with a poet’s precision, and every word, from the perfectly-echoed outport dialogue to sweeping passages of description of the landscape, is chosen with care. I couldn’t find a wrong note in the entire book; every phrase felt as if it were the only possible one to choose. Again, I compared it to Galore: in that novel, the reader saw through the eyes of numerous characters throughout the sweeping scale of the story; here we are locked into a single perspective, always seeing, hearing and thinking what Sweetland sees, hears and thinks. Crummey handles the limited third-person point of view more skilfully than any novelist I’ve read since Hilary Mantel in Wolf Hall: we are so close to Sweetland it’s as if we’re looking over his shoulder.
It’s not too much of a spoiler, I hope, to say that there’s a large swathe of the novel in which Sweetland is all alone with no human contact, and it’s a real tribute to how brilliantly this is written that even that section of the book fully held my interest. You have to appreciate that I never enjoy stories where the protagonist is all alone, battling man-against-nature with nothing but his thoughts for company. I’ve never read Robinson Crusoe; as a teen I tried to read Island of the Blue Dolphins because everyone said it was great, but I couldn’t get into it; don’t even get me started on the ordeal of studying The Old Man and the Sea in Grade Eleven! But Sweetland is such a vivid and beautifully drawn character and his voice is so compelling that even those parts of the story where he was alone for long stretches held my attention completely.
Finally, I’ll say this, both as a reader and as a fellow Newfoundland writer whose new book is appearing in the same season as Sweetland — if this book does not sweep all the local and regional book awards and make at least an appearance on the shortlists for the major national awards (preferably winning those too), there’s no justice in CanLit. Newfoundland writing, and Canadian writing, and just writing, doesn’t get much better than this.