From the Record, October 20th, 2017
There is a subset of Can Lit dedicated to books by and about Newfoundlanders (with the accent on “land” when spoken). This small but talented group of authors has fiercely dedicated followers, of which my daughter-in-law, Janine, who hails from Grand Falls-Windsor, NL, is one. Not that she necessarily likes or appreciates all the books, but she does read them, and often passes them on to me. Included in this list are authors E. Annie Proulx, Joan Clark, Michael Crummy, Lisa Moore, Wayne Johnston and Donna Morrissey, among others.
Ms. Morrissey, 62, is the best-selling, award-winning author of five previous novels. She was born and raised in The Beaches, an outport in western Newfoundland, and now lives in Halifax. Previous works include Kit’s Law, Downhill Chance, Sylvanus Now, What They Wanted, and The Deception of Livvy Higgs, as well as two children’s books. This, her most recent novel, was published in 2016 (and, fortuitously, is available in the Lennoxville Library!).
The Fortunate Brother picks up on the fortunes of the Now family, twenty-some years after the events of Morrissey’s 2005 novel, Sylvanus Now. (Just to clarify, Now is the family name, not an adverb, in this context.) Patriarch Sylvanus still lives with his wife Addie in the outport community where we first met them in the previous book, but much has happened. Their surviving children—they lost three as babies— have grown up, and the two oldest, Chris and Sylvie, moved west to Alberta, following the recent tradition of Newfoundlanders leaving their home province in search of financial security in the oil patch. Unfortunately, eldest brother Chris was killed in an oil field accident three years earlier. Youngest son Kyle, the “fortunate brother”, stayed at home with his mother and father, being too young to head west when his siblings left.
The family has been indelibly affected by the death of Chris, and by other events related to living in rural Newfoundland. Sylvanus, who suffered a heart attack, now spends much of his time drinking. He has given up on making a living in the cod fishery, which collapsed some years earlier as a result of over-fishing, but ekes out a living in construction. Addie has developed breast cancer and opted to have a double mastectomy, but true to her nature, wants to keep it a secret from all but her closest friends and family. Kyle is left at home, spending time with friends, usually at a bar, and feeling sad.
“At times Kyle cursed Sylvie and Chris both. For leaving him torn between two grieving parents whose desired end could never be found in him. For feeling lame because there wasn’t enough of him to fill their hearts. Times he wished for a sword to cleave himself in half: one traipsing behind his father, keeping him from the loneliness of his pain, the other shadowing his mother, helping her cleanse her house of grief.”
Into this unhappy scene Morrissey injects an event which changes everything. Clar, the local black sheep and bully, is found dead, stabbed and floating near the Now family wharf. Since he was nobody’s favourite person, suspicion falls on almost everyone, including both Sylvanus and Kyle. The more deeply Kyle delves into the circumstances of the murder, the more convinced he is that a member of his family could indeed be responsible. At this point, the narrative moves away from being a family saga and slice-of-Newfoundland-life portrait, and more of a mystery novel. Cover-ups abound, and Kyle and his friends and relatives, including best friend Hooker and cousins Wade and Lyman, are in the thick of it. Several other locals, Clar’s ex-wife Bonnie, the mysterious guitar-strumming drifter Kate McKenzie, and skittish loner Trapp, all play a role in first complicating and finally resolving the mystery. A refreshing change of pace is the inclusion of a smart and kindly police officer, Detective MacDuff.
One of the pleasures of Morrissey’s novel is her very colourful depiction of outport life and language. Expressions that are heard only in Newfoundland are sprinkled throughout, occasionally giving rise to an LOL response from this reader. At other times, though, the harshness of their existence seeps through the pervasive camaraderie and banter, and we see how difficult their lives are, often made more difficult by a natural reluctance to share thoughts and feelings.
What I liked: the often lyrical quality of the writing, including the wonderful “Newfie-ness” of it all; the evocative depiction of outport life; and the solid image of Kyle, struggling to cope with loss. What I didn’t like: the descriptions of area geography were not clear enough, although they are important to the story line; I found myself longing for a map or two to make sense of some of the action. Finally, too much of a good thing—I skimmed some of the barroom scenes just because I tired of trying to decipher what they were saying.
All in all, a good read. Reading Sylvanus Now would be helpful for background, but not absolutely necessary to enjoy this book. If you can’t actually get to The Rock, reading about it is the next best thing!
Yowza, Yowza, Yowza!!! Bibliophile alert, Bibliophile alert!!!The Refugee Sponsorship book sale in the Lennoxville United Church began yesterday and runs tomorrow 11:00 am to 8:00 pm, and Saturday from 9:00 am till noon. AND: Lennoxville Library Family Story Night # (Thursday from 5:30-7:0) will feature Leonardo the Terrible Monster by Mo Willems. Check Lennoxville Library on Facebook for more info. Reserve spots via 819-562-4949