This will likely be my last book review for 2022, and honestly, I may have saved one of the best for last. I knew from reading Terry Doyle’s short stories that he’s a vivid and incisive writer who can depict slices of contemporary Newfoundland working-class life like almost nobody else writing today. I was excited to see what he could do with the space of a novel, and I wasn’t disappointed. I started reading The Wards after midnight last night, when I finished the other book I was reading and wasn’t sleepy yet. Stayed awake until almost 1:30 reading it, then woke in the morning and didn’t get out bed till I’d finished it — that was how compelling I found it.
That’s not to say that this is a book that’s going to pull you along with a mystery plot or anything else that will keep the pages turning to find out “what’s going to happen?” Only one major thing is going to happen, and it happens between the halfway and two-thirds point of the book. What will keep you reading is not trying to resolve suspense or solve a puzzle, but seeing how one simple, though devastating, event affects every member of a family whose characters are sketched in relentless but loving detail.
The Wards — Gloria, her husband Al, their 19-year-old daughter Dana and 23-year-old son Gussey — are a middle-class St. John’s family, their lifestyle (house on a cul-de-sac, giant lifted pickup truck in the driveway) sustained by pipefitter Al’s stints working away from home on various megaprojects, currently at Voisey’s Bay. Gloria and Al seem — not exactly happy, but contented and used to the rhythm, and the annoyances, of their marriage. Dana is trying to spread her wings at university and fly beyond her family’s limited circle; unemployed Gussey, whose main interest is smoking weed with his best friend Mark, seems to be forever stuck on the ground. Completing the circle of characters is Gloria’s sister Paula, who lives on the same street; with a husband who has left her and two sons working away in Alberta and rarely in touch, she envies Gloria’s life.
None of these people — not even Dana, with her aspirations to an educated and broader life — is good at handling, or talking about, emotions. The person who might be most in touch with his feelings is not one of the Wards, but Gussey’s loser friend Mark — a guy portrayed as so incompetent that, in a hilarious appropriation of a real-life event for fictional purposes, he is the person who painted “DRIVE TRUE” on a drive-through restaurant’s pavement. Mark scribbles poems (which he calls “lyrics” although he’s not a musician; he recognizes that a young man who admits to writing poems is about 5000x more vulnerable than one who says he’s writing lyrics) in a notebook that nobody sees, but he can’t articulate what he’s feeling any better than any of the Wards can.
It’s a galactic distance from the St. John’s world of the Wards to the upper-crust British world of The Crown, yet something that I said when I first watched that TV series came back to me in reading this book: “It’s quite an accomplishment to make an entire dramatic series about a group of people whose guiding principle is to show as little emotion as possible.” The emotional incoherence of the Wards and their family and friends does not stem from exactly the same sources as the British stiff-upper-lip philosophy, but it’s not entirely different either. You do what your sphere in life requires you to do — whether that’s working away from home at a job you hate, or keeping a family together when they seem to have no desire to be together — and, crucially, you don’t complain. Or rather, you “piss and moan,” as Al accuses Gloria of doing at one point in the novel, but you don’t ever open up about how you really feel, or have an honest conversation about difficult emotions with someone you care about.
So the central question at the heart of The Wards is (for me, anyway): when people who are so distanced from their own emotions and any ability to talk about them get hit with one of life’s Big Events, how do they process it? How do they deal with themselves, with each other, with loss, with change? That’s what this book is about, and there are no huge epiphanies or giant about-faces: the Wards are not those kind of people. There are only small moments: a tiny self-discovery, a mute attempt at connection, a missed opportunity to love. The book isn’t flawless, but it’s beautiful and sharply observant and a little heartbreaking, in all the best ways.
Also, there’s a dog in the book, and I have an ongoing beef with author Terry Doyle about the fate of dogs in fiction that goes back to a short story in his collection Dig and a conversation on my podcast. When I heard him read the first few pages of this novel, in which Gloria buys a dog off Facebook Marketplace, I was very concerned for the fate of the dog. I won’t do a “Does The Dog Die” style spoiler here, but I will say — the dog probably makes out better, in the end, than most of the Wards do.