New Girl in Little Cove, by Dahmnait Monaghan

This is a delightful novel that somehow flew under my radar when it came out last year. I read it in less than 24 hours and found that, while generally light in tone and heart, it was completely compelling.

The story is set in 1985, when Rachel arrives from Ontario to teach French in a tiny Newfoundland outport. It’s pre-moratorium, so most of the men in the community are still fishing, and it’s pre-end-of-denominational-education, so Rachel has to cross her fingers and promise she’s an observant Catholic before she can get the job at St. Jude’s. Even more troubling, the local priest sits her down for a little talking-to about the importance of upholding Catholic values in her teaching, in her encounters with students, and in her personal life — intrusive, but perhaps relevant as the previous French teacher ran away with the previous priest.

There’s lots of great local characters, insightful and humourous depictions of rural Newfoundland life in that era, painfully accurate scenes of the trials and tribulations of being a first year teacher, and a gently-blossoming romance to sweeten the story. There were definitely elements here I could relate to — my first year teaching was 1986, the year after Rachel’s, although in my case the journey was in the opposite direction, from Newfoundland to Ontario.

Author Dahmnait Monaghan, who lives in the UK but has Newfoundland roots, hits that sweet spot that so many of the best writers of what’s often dismissively called “women’s fiction” are good at: a light tone with lots of humour occasioned by Rachel’s fish-out-of-water status in a fishing community, but with that lightness, touching on some deep topics. Yes, this is about a mainlander finding her place in a tiny remote outport, about a first-year teacher learning the ropes, about a lapsed Catholic trying to fit in in a place where everyone, especially a teacher, is expected to show up for Mass every Sunday. But it’s also about recovering from grief, and about the tough moral choices you sometimes have to make when your personal convictions chafe against what your job demands. It’s also, while being amusing, a loving and respectful look at Newfoundland outport life as it was 35 years ago. One of the strongest parts of the novel is Rachel’s reaction to the Newfoundland dialect around her (which is very well rendered, not always the case in fictional portrayals of outport life) and how she learns, or is taught, to question her own assumptions about that dialect. She’s come to teach French, but she finds herself learning another language as well.

Sweet, sincere, and surprisingly thought-provoking in spots, New Girl in Little Cove was a quick read and one I found completely absorbing.

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