The latest book by Newfoundland novelist Paul Bowdring was one I did not want to miss. Mister Nightingale is the story of a middle-aged Newfoundland writer, James Nightingale, returning to his home province after living in Toronto for many years. His marriage has ended, his books are modestly successful, and while he takes some time out to reconnect with old friends, his university-aged daughter, and his aging father, Nightingale reflects on where life has taken him and what he’s actually accomplished.
There’s a lot of reflection here — this is not the book for anyone who wants a fast-paced, plot-driven story. If I’m comparing it to other books I’ve read in the past few weeks, the comparison that resonates most is between James Nightingale and Sripathi Rao from The Hero’s Walk. Both are men in later middle life whose lives have, in many ways, disappointed them, men who feel they have not fulfilled their own early dreams or others’ expectations of them. However, as Nightingale is a writer, there is the added layer of artistic angst, which means that he not only struggles with the meaning of his artistic vocation, what it has achieved and whether it was even worth pursuing — but also that he does so in stunningly beautiful language.
This is a novelist’s novel, a book for people who love words. It’s also a fun read for anyone who knows and loves St. John’s, Newfoundland and its literary scene, which is the main reason it floated to the top of my overcrowded “to-read” list. Apart from the general caricatures of the local scene and the loving evoked details of the city, there are a few characters that are pretty clearly (and in some cases, hilariously) based on thinly-disguised real people. Another strand of the novel that will strike a chord with many readers is Nightingale’s relationship with his elderly father, Malc. Malc, who lives in a long-term care facility, occupies that marginal space around the edges of actual dementia that is so familiar to those of us who have dealt with aging loved ones. Sometimes his conversation is completely sensible, only to be replaced seconds later by non-sequiturs that show how far he’s strayed from the present-day reality.
I’ll admit there were aspects of this novel’s plot that I didn’t find entirely believable or satisfying (particularly one major incident near the end of the book), but in the end, this is not a novel to be read for the plot. This is one man’s reflection (Nightingale’s and, perhaps, Bowdring’s, though I always try to be careful in speculating about how autobiographical a writer’s work is) on what it means to be a writer, what it means to be more than halfway through your life, and what it means to go back to the place you came from. A reflective and well-written book, and often quite a funny one as well.