Splashed and Swallowed
- Michael Crummey (Author)
Galore. Doubleday Canada (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Beatrice MacNeil (Author)
Where White Horses Gallop. Key Porter Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Greg Malone (Author)
You Better Watch Out. Random House (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Samuel Martin
Michael Crummey’s new novel Galore may owe a literary debt to Gabriel Garcia Marquez, but the world of Paradise Deep is no Macondo rip-off. Crummey’s multi-generational epic may seem like magical realism at first glance—considering a man is birthed from the belly of a whale in the first few pages—but the book owes more to Newfoundland folklore than it does to Marquez.
Crummey has said in recent interviews concerning the book that it was his intention to salvage stories from traditional and contemporary Newfoundland folklore and to tie them together in the fictional world he was creating. This fictional world is the outport of Paradise Deep, run by the unscrupulous merchant King-Me Sellers, who is always at loggerheads with Devine’s Widow, the town’s matriarch, and Father Phelan, a whoring priest with a big heart and bigger libido and an earthy sense of the sacred.
Into this almost medieval world the Sea Orphan is born out of the belly of a beached whale. “The Great White” they call him, or “St. Jude of the Lost Cause,” eventually becoming simply Judah—a mute albino who is the novel’s silent other. The perpetual mystery surrounding Judah, signified by the stink of fish that never leaves his skin, is what continues to interest the reader in this character throughout the book. But it is Father Phelan who is the novel’s great comic creation, and perhaps one of Crummey’s most hilarious and moving characters to date.
Phelan’s rapacious presence is so strong in the first half of the book that the second half suffers somewhat for his absence, though his spirit and his influence on the community continue in the later generations.
There are many stories in this novel—some magical, others mundane, all steeped in deep humanity and all woven masterfully together in this whale of a novel written in the tradition of Patrick Kavanagh’s Gaff Topsails. In Galore Michael Crummey has written his finest and certainly his funniest novel so far. It’s the type of novel that will swallow you whole for three days and submerge you in a fictional world as magically real as the one you left behind.
Not all novels, however, require fantastical occurrences to lift both plot and characters off the page. Beatrice MacNeil’s Where White Horses Gallop—an anticipated follow-up to her well-received first novel Butterflies Dance in the Dark—takes the reader into the era of the Second World War through the fictional experiences of three friends in the Cape Breton Highlanders. Hector MacDonald, Benny Doucet, and Calum MacPherson are all from “the white shingled houses of Beinn Barra” and the novel oscillates between their experiences in the Allied trenches overseas and the lives of those they left behind in Cape Breton.
There are many storylines on both sides of the Atlantic and MacNeil has a smooth way of transitioning from dream to reality, past to present. However, the two distinct worlds created in the novel—Europe’s battlefields and Cape Breton’s hills—jar against each other. Though this works situationally, it does not always seem to work stylistically. Everyday life in Cape Breton is starkly different from life on the front lines but there are times in this novel when scenes in the trenches are more vivid than scenes from home, causing Bienne Barra to come across as overly romanticized and less believable than the tragedy that befalls Benny Doucet, once a talented fiddler, on no man’s land.
This is not to say that I disagree with Alistair MacLeod’s assessment of the novel; MacNeil certainly does have “brilliant insight into the souls of the wounded.” Though Benny Doucet becomes a tragic figure, it is how his downfall deepens the wounds in his friends and family that becomes the true tragedy of this novel largely concerned with the effects of war on a community.
MacNeil sets out to honour the men who served in the theatre of war as members of the Cape Breton Highlanders, and she does this with poetic flare and reserved narrative economy. She shows the suffering and loss on both sides of the Atlantic, as well as the impossibility of fully returning home. There are moments in this novel that splash like winter sea spray on the face—moments that wake you in a trench in Italy or at a funeral in Bienne Barra. It is ultimately these moments that stay with you after the last page of this impressionistic and often impressive second novel.
A novel succeeds or fails on its ability to narratively connect the strands of many smaller stories with the larger whole. In a memoir, however, narrative connectivity is found in the form of someone’s life and plot plays second fiddle to situation—often the funnier the better. Greg Malone’s memoir You Better Watch Out, about growing up in 1950s St. John’s, Newfoundland, is a work that highlights hilarious and often terrible or moving memories from Malone’s past.
His gift as a comic (he co-founded the comedy troupe CODCO) not only matches but also perfectly balances his gift as a raconteur, reminiscent of the late Frank McCourt. Malone can splash you awake to your own prejudices in recounting his childhood struggle to come to terms with his stark difference from the other boys at St. Bon’s. He can also humorously bless you in his telling of how, as a young boy, he would play Mass with his brothers, all dolled up as the archbishop (or sometimes even the pope), administering his own homemade sacrament of ironed bits of bread.
One of the great strengths of this memoir is Malone’s disarming honesty. Even though he paints a terrible portrait of life in St. Bonaventure’s—instances of physical and emotional abuse by The Christian Brothers—he also introduces the reader to a good priest he met in his time at St. Bon’s, a man who became his mentor and eventually his friend. This ability to perceive the good and the bad in humanity is held together by Malone’s deep love for all the people he writes about—even the old city of St. John’s.
One of the most moving and troubling portraits drawn in this memoir is of Malone’s father—a man who loved sports and scouts and who could not understand or accept his son who would rather play house and dress as a woman.
Malone tells “stories of little disasters, small betrayals, secret dramas, and the fierce storms that rage in the undefended hearts of the young.” Even though his personal memoir does not strive for the epic heights of MacNeil’s Where White Horses Gallop or Crummey’s Galore, the humanity of Malone’s work runs just as deep and perhaps deeper for being remembered rather than imagined.
Though little may seem to connect these three books—aside from Canada’s east coast—all of them on the level of pure storytelling can suck you in and swallow you whole, submerging you in worlds as diverse as an old haunted Newfoundland outport, the bloody trenches of WWII, and St. John’s in the 1950s. Though Crummey, I think, is the most sophisticated of this triumvirate, I do recommend all three of these writers and their respective worlds.
- Strong Voices by Allan Weiss
Books reviewed: The Cameraman by Bill Gaston, Necessary Betrayals by Guillaume Vigneault, and The Clarinet Polka by Keith Maillard
- Wartime Memories by Norman Ravvin
Books reviewed: Anne Frank: Reflections on Her Life and Legacy by H. A. Enzer and S. Solotaroff-Enzer and Bialystok to Birkenau: The Holocaust Journey of Michel Mielnicki by Michel Mielnicki and John Munro
- Skinny Dipping with Seals by Rebecca Raglon
Books reviewed: The Sea's Voice by Harry Thurston
- Essential Intimacies by Lisa Salem-Wiseman
Books reviewed: The Garden of Earthly Intimacies by Meeka Walsh, Season of Apples by Ann Copeland, and Honour by Ann Decter
- Literary Exchanges by Louise Ladouceur
Books reviewed: In Translation: The Gabrielle Roy-Joyce Marshall Correspondence by Jane Everett and A Secret Between Us by Daniel Poliquin and Donald Winkler
MLA: Martin, Samuel. Splashed and Swallowed. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 21 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #208 (Spring 2011), Prison Writing. (pg. 149 - 151)
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