Northeast of King
- Kenneth J. Harvey (Author)
The Town That Forgot How to Breathe. Raincoast Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Lawrence Mathews
Ken Harvey is one of Newfoundland’s most protean writers, as well as being one of its most prolific. Dipping into the pages of a new Harvey novel is like opening Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates: you never know what you’re going to get. And sometimes–to pursue the comparison–the information on the box is confusing.
In the case of The Town That Forgot How to Breathe, back-cover blurbs reference to Hitchcock, Garcia Marquez, Stephen King, Beowulf, and Virginia Woolf, a gamut running from the exaltedly literary to the unabashedly popular. This novel is closer to King’s work than to that of the others. Readers looking for thematic profundity, depth and complexity of characterization, or language that transcends the efficiently utilitarian will be disappointed. But this isn’t to say that The Town That Forgot How to Breathe is unsuccessful on its own terms; it’s a well-designed page-turner that has the makings of a big-time movie.
Set in the small fishing community of Bareneed, Newfoundland, the narrative begins innocuously enough. Some local residents are attacked by a mysterious respiratory disorder which baffles the local doctor whose patients become alarmingly disoriented, losing all sense of identity. Then other strange events begin to occur. Bizarre species of fish (such as a huge albino shark) show up in the harbour. A fisherman jigging for cod in his dory sees a mermaid. The well-preserved bodies of people drowned in earlier decades–and centuries–are washed up onto the beach. The military shows up in force and takes over the town. A fisheries officer from St. John’s on holiday with his young daughter experiences an inexplicable urge to commit murder. The daughter makes friends with the girl next door, who turns out to be a ghost. And so on.
Harvey paces the narrative effectively, using about a dozen characters as focalizers, cutting from one story-line to another, gradually making the plot more complicated and baffling, until a cataclysmic natural disaster looms. The characters are, necessarily, somewhat simplistically conceived, but believable and sympathetic enough for this sort of fiction. And in the end, everything makes sense, a tribute to the author’s ingenuity. If the explanation is somewhat disappointing, that’s not really Harvey’s fault–such explanations, simply because they are required to “make sense,” invariably pale beside the mysteries they must demystify. It’s a flaw intrinsic to the genre.
Unfortunately, the novel does fail at another level. A smugly Luddite epilogue expresses the naive view that communal salvation for Bareneed (and, presumably, the rest of Newfoundland) lies in turning back the clock. But that material will disappear when The Town That Forgot How to Breathe hits the big screen. If the myriad opportunities for spectacular visual effects are properly exploited, they are what viewers will remember.
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MLA: Mathews, Lawrence. Northeast of King. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 10 Dec. 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #184 (Spring 2005), (Grace, Dolbec, Kirk, Dawson, Appleford). (pg. 134 - 135)
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