by Michael Crummey
Random House of Canada
Available August 19, 2014
320 pages, $32.00
Michael Crummey brings an isolated, austere landscape and its unforgettable inhabitants to life in his latest novel Sweetland. He paints the harsh life of the East Coast with frank simplicity. Never over-the-top. Always genuine:
“The ferry sailed by the breakwater through a blear of rain. The ocean beyond in an uproar. The deckhands hunched in neon-yellow slickers as they threw down the hawsers and winched the gangplank to the government wharf.”
The community of Sweetland —a remote Newfoundland island— awaits resettlement. Most islanders embrace the opportunity to start a new life in more hospitable towns —except for a couple old men, including stubborn Moses Sweetland. The 69-year-old man’s refusal to accept the government’s monetary offer for relocation is a hindrance to the others. Moses starts receiving threats: anonymous letters tucked in his cupboards and mutilated hares caught in his snares. Still, Sweetland’s stand becomes “more firmly anchored as the holdouts [dwindle], as if to offset the loss in numbers with a blind certainty.”
Concerned about his firm conviction are colourful characters that capture the essence of being Newfoundlanders. We meet Queenie Coffin, an elderly woman who spends her days reading romance novels and smoking by the window sill, never setting foot outside her timeworn home. The lewd Priddle brothers who boast about their escapades on the mainland, their tattooed knuckles marks of their stint in prison. A gentle blind man named Pilgrim who nudges Sweetland to make certain choices. A young autistic boy —Jesse— who accompanies Sweetland on his trapping and fishing excursions, and who warms the old man’s heart. Most colourful of all is Sweetland. Although bullheaded and set in his ways, he’ll win you over with his sense of humour and kindness. These characters form a close-knit, unravelling community. You will feel like you are witnessing their real conversations and interactions while the harrowing story unfolds.
A tragic accident forces Sweetland to cave in and accept the resettlement deal. After most people leave the island for their new homes on the mainland, Sweetland makes a bold decision. His life of welcome solitude becomes one of stark loneliness. He is not only threatened by the forces of nature, but also by the ghosts of his past. We learn the reasons behind his long-standing resistance to leave the island. The end is bittersweet yet perfect, and it will prey on your mind for a long time.
*I received an ARC in exchange for an honest review.*