The Wards, by Terry Doyle

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.

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Urchin, by Kate Story

Urchin is a weird, twisty tale full of unexpected directions. It weds electricity with fairy magic in 1901 St. John’s, as Guglielmo Marconi arrives to test his new wireless technology. Thirteen year old Dorthea has plenty of worries: she doesn’t fit in at her posh girls’ school; her family is ruptured after the deaths of six siblings in infancy or early childhood; her mother is distant and her father often absent; her house is said to be built on a fairy path which might account for any number of strange occurences. Add to this the fact that Dor’s feeling of being uncomfortable in her own skin is extreme even for a pubescent girl in a society with extremely rigid gender roles: she’s never really felt “right” about being a girl, and also she’s got a pretty intense crush on her best friend. In other words, Dor has a lot to cope with even before Marconi arrives in town and a friend who is also a newspaper reporter needs a spy inside Marconi’s operation to find out what the mysterious inventor is really up to.

When Dor slips into the disguise of Jack Kelly, she finds an identity that fits far more comfortably than her own — but she also discovers that the fae activity that’s been disturbing her home is more dangerous than she suspected, and is being exacerbated by Marconi’s experiments. Fairies apparently don’t like people interfering with unseen forces like electricity, and Dor ends up fighting unexpected battles — not least, the battle to discover her own identity.

Urchin is technically a young-adult novel, and would definitely appeal to young readers who enjoy a challenging read with a blend of realism and fantasy, but it’s also a great adult read, with a vividly realized turn-of-the-20th-century St. John’s as its backdrop and an unconventional protagonist who pulls us into this tale of fairy lore, modern technology, and self-realization.

Constant Nobody, by Michelle Butler Hallett

It’s hard to believe I haven’t already posted a review of this wonderful novel, which recently won Atlantic Canada’s most prestigious literary prize: the Thomas Raddall Atlantic Fiction Award. I had already read it, but, as is often the case with those of us who live in a small and close-knit literary community, I read it in manuscript form and offered some critique to the author, who is a friend. However, reading the finished book was such a completely different and much more overwhelming experience.

At its most basic level, Constant Nobody is a literary spy story that begins against the background of the Spanish Civil War, when British spy Temerity West has a chance encounter with Russian spy Kostya Nikto. Months later, when Kostya is back home in Moscow, they meet again. Temerity is now living the exceptionally dangerous life of a British agent undercover in Stalin’s USSR when Kostya finds her and (maybe) saves her life. For long, agonizing weeks, as Temerity hides out in Kostya’s apartment, the two are bound together by secrets, lies, intrigue, attraction, and danger.

It’s a love story, of course, but it’s so much more than that: these two people are drawn together, and owe much to each other, but can never come close to trusting each other. In fact, they can trust nobody: one of the things this novel does most strikingly is recreate the claustrophobic atmosphere of Moscow under Stalin’s purges. Kostya is a respected KGB officer, yet neither he nor any of his fellow officers can feel any sense of security, nor can any of them trust each other. Kostya’s privileged life is almost as precarious as Temerity’s illicit presence in the city; the dreaded knock could come on anyone’s door, at any moment.

This is a beautifully-written and tightly constructed novel of intrigue, suspense, and thoughtful reflection all interwoven into the story of two unforgettable characters.

Scratching River, by Michelle Porter

Scratching River is an appropriate follow-up to Porter’s Approaching Fire, though there is more prose than poetry in the current book. As with Approaching Fire, reflections on the natural landscape — in this case, the geography of rivers rather than fire — are interspersed with, and serve as metaphors for, a family memoir. The story centres around the narrator’s brother, who lives with both schizophrenia and autism, and the horrific abuse he suffered in a care facility. This intimate story is set against the broader background of a Metis community dealing with intergenerational trauma and connection to history and land. As always, Porter’s work is beautifully written and thought-provoking.

This Is How We Love, by Lisa Moore

This new novel by Lisa Moore, arguably Newfoundland’s best known contemporary fiction writer, is (at least on one level) a story about a young man who is the victim of a violent crime, and the mother who makes her way through the snowstorm of a century to be by his side in hospital.

It’s much more than that, of course: most of the story unfolds through flashbacks, though the viewpoints of three main characters: Jules, the mother, Xavier, her son, and Trinity, a girl who grew up in their neighbourhood who was briefly a childhood friend of Xavier’s and re-appears unexpectedly in his life as a young adult.

Stories and scenes from their past, not unfolding chronologically, are layered over one another with the densely detailed sensory images that any reader of Moore’s fiction is familiar with. These memories and scenes, laid next to and sometimes overlapping one another like collage, do exactly what the title promises: explore the ways we love the ones we love. What love is like in families, in blended families, in chosen families, in wildly dysfunctional families — all these variations and permutations are on display here.

I think this is my favourite Lisa Moore book partly because it felt so close to my own experience and concerns. Moore and I are the same age and live in the same city, and she creates a lovingly detailed St. John’s in this novel, entirely recognizable to anyone who lives here (it’s just my nit-picky brain that has to chime in, whenever a local author does this, to notice the few details that have been changed for the author’s own reasons: no other sensible reader would break the stride of this story to say “But why are Xavier and Trinity at Mary Queen of Peace for elementary school? They’re not zoned for there, are they?” although to be fair I have had St. John’s readers ask me the same kinds of questions about choices I’ve made in my own books, so maybe it’s not just me).

Apart from the broader details of life in downtown St. John’s during the span of decades covered by this novel, all of which were recognizable, there’s the extremely specific detail of Snowmageddon, the January 2020 storm that, for residents of the St. John’s area, put us into “state of emergency” mode two months before the pandemic started. The closed airport, the snow-clogged streets, the power outages, the locked hospital doors — it’s all familiar, and rendered in that beautifully specific detail that makes a great story come alive.

The specific pull of love between a mother and a young-adult son — the worry you feel, the boundaries you observe or violate — is also very close to my own concerns and something I’ve written about recently, so this book hit home for me on that level too, as I imagine it would for many parents of young adults. If it’s really important to you to have a story unfold in a straight-forward, linear fashion, or if you don’t like writers who linger for a long time on loving, detailed descriptions of sensory images or moments from a scene, then this novel might not be for you — and that’s fair; no novel is for everybody. But if you’re willing to travel with a skilled writer like Moore along the winding path that leads up to a single, life-changing incident, and along the way experience a thousand vivid images of how we love — then I recommend this novel, which I found completely absorbing.

Talking to Canadians, by Rick Mercer

A family member gave my husband Rick Mercer’s memoir Talking to Canadians for Christmas. So a lot of Christmas vacation was spent listening to Jason burst out laughing while reading this book, then having him go, “Oh, I’ve just gotta read you this bit … oh, just one more bit …” while reading sections of the book.

In keeping with my policy that the best way to enjoy a comedian’s memoir is on audiobook, read by the author, I decided I would like to hear the book read aloud — but by Rick Mercer, and also in order from beginning to end.

This is as funny and thoughtful as any Rick Mercer fan would expect his book to be, with great anecdotes about growing up in Newfoundland and breaking into show business on the local scene before eventually making it big on national TV. My only disappointment came when I realized the book was nearing an end and Rick was just getting ready to launch his solo TV show. That was when it dawned on me this book was not going to cover the long and epic run of the Mercer Report — that will have to wait for another book! Thoroughly enjoyable!

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.

We, Jane, by Aimee Mann

We, Jane is probably not a novel I would ever have picked up or heard about if it hadn’t been one of this year’s NL Reads selections, which I think is in itself enough to justify a “competition” like NL Reads — the point is not really the competition (which is just a contest for which book/writer can round up the most votes), but to promote books by local authors that readers might not otherwise hear of.

The premise of We, Jane is inspired by the idea of the Jane Collective, transposed to a contemporary Canadian setting. Marthe is a Newfoundland woman living in Montreal, just turned thirty and feeling somewhat rootless and adrift in her life. She feels the need of a cause and a community to belong to, and having had an abortion a couple of years earlier, wonders if abortion rights and access might be a cause for her to get involved in. When she meets an older woman — we later learn her name is Ruth, though for a long time Marthe thinks of her as Jane — who dreams of going back to her rural Newfoundland roots and helping the local midwife perform abortions for desperate women who can’t access legal abortions in St. John’s, Marthe becomes caught up in “Jane’s” dream.

This novel is about a lot of things – reproductive rights, and the challenge of access to abortions in economically depressed and remote rural places even though abortion is legal in Canada, but also about community, about communities of women in particular, and about finding your place in the world. Based on reviews I’ve read online, one of the biggest deciding factors in whether you connect with this book or not will be how you feel about Marthe. She’s very much the central character and it’s about her journey, and although the narration is third-person not first-person, it’s a very close third-person so we do feel like we are getting not just her thoughts but her voice. I loved Marthe’s voice — even when I found the choices she made frustrating (as I often did), I loved her wit and observations (which are, of course, a blend of the character’s and the narrator’s observations – there were at least three sentences in this novel that were such perfect observations of Newfoundland life that I had to highlight them).

I read this book in a single insomnia-riddled night (it’s fairly short), and I think that was a good way to do it — not that I recommend insomnia, but it’s a book that rewards a single, immersive reading. I really enjoyed it. I’m not sure it’ll be enough to change my NL Reads vote (which I thought I had already decided on prior to reading this) but it certainly makes me think twice.

The Stolen Ones, by Ida Linehan Young

This is the first Ida Linehan Young novel I’ve read, even though we work in a similar field — Newfoundland historical fiction — and I picked it up mainly because it’s a contender for this year’s NL Reads competition and I usually try to read all the NL Reads books.

This novel moves back and forth between past and present. The present-day story is that of Darlene and Tiffany, a middle-aged mother and her 19 year old daughter from Boston. Darlene’s own mother, who died of Covid-19 in 2020, had begun a search through online geneology/DNA websites for the family history that these three generations of strong, resilient women are lacking, and found ties to a family in Newfoundland about which they know nothing. When travel restrictions lift to allow them to visit Newfoundland in summer 2021, they trace those roots to a family reunion/birthday celebration for 101-year-old woman who may or may not be a relative.

The historical story, unfolded through chapters set in the late 19th/early 20th century as well as through journal entries that Daphne and Tiffany are given to read, tells the story of Mary Rourke and Peter Nolan, childhood sweethearts who rediscover each other and marry in a small outpoart in the late 1800s. Apparently Peter, Mary, and many of the characters in this historical story appear in the author’s last three novels, which made me feel at some points like I was trying to catch up on a story from which I’d missed important background details. The timeline of the historical story was also a bit confusing, as the dates on the chapter headings seemed to jump back and forth in ways that didn’t make sense narratively and made me want to check a paper copy of the book to be sure there wasn’t an error in the e-book I was reading. Some of the big plot points in the historical narrative did not feel fully resolved, but might have made more sense if I’d had the context of the previous three books and known more about the characters. Despite this, I enjoyed Peter and Mary — especially Mary, a pioneering woman doctor at a time when few women got the chance to be qualified in that profession — and their world.

However, I enjoyed the present-day story best, especially the way it was set agains the pandemic background. The idea of the family having a huge blowout for their matriarch’s 101st birthday in 2021 because they couldn’t have a party in 2020 rang very true (although I was a bit worried about their 300-person celebration — even in summer 2021, there were many limits here on gathering sizes, and I feel like the folks in the book may have exceeded them!). I liked Daphne’s uncertainty about whether she was really a part of this family, since the family ties are not explained/discovered until the very end, and her sense of doubting whether or not she “deserved” the open-arms welcome from her Newfoundland family felt very believable for this character and what we’ve learned about her background.

In closing I’ll just add that I came into this year’s NL Reads as a reader with a strong bias in favour of one of the selected books; I’ve now read 3/4 and have one to go so will reserve my recommendation for a winner until I have read all four! As always, this is a great program for raising awareness of local books and I encourage all NL readers to check out all the selected books.

Dark Water, by J.S. Cook

After finishing the entire Shetland series of mystery novels and looking for something with a similar flavour, it was a natural choice to pick up the first in the Kildevil Cove series by local author J.S. Cook. I know from social media that Cook, like me, is a big fan of those Shetland books, and this series definitely has a similar feel, with the rocky and remote island in question being Newfoundland.

Danny Quirke is a police officer currently suspended from the force while an investigation is ongoing into the death of a suspect he was apprehending. He returns to the remote community where he was raised to attend his grandfather’s funeral, only to encounter his estranged best friend, wealthy businessman Taigh Heaney. There’s a lot of tension between these two old friends … and some of it is definitely sexual tension.

This novel, as the first in a series, is putting a lot of pieces in place and establishing a lot of things about the characters, their relationships, and the backdrop against which their story plays out. With so much happening, there’s not the single clear “whodunit” storyline you might expect from a mystery novel, but rather a lot of murky secrets from the past reaching their fingers into Danny’s and Taigh’s present-day lives. Mysteries are confronted and solved, but there’s no resolution as simple as “the butler did it” — rather a complicated tapestry of motives, some of which leave tantalizing threads that will hopefully be woven into the subsequent novels in the series.