Eastern Promises

Reviewed by Lee Frew

Despite their generic differences, each of these three novels set in Atlantic Canada seeks to resolve its plot with characters achieving some lasting sense of belonging. In Lesley Crewe’s domestic romance Kin, an extended Cape Breton family serves as the enduring reference point for three generations of its members. Kevin Major’s New Under the Sun, which can be read as historiographic metafiction, focuses on a protagonist’s return home “from away” within a much longer history of human settlement in Newfoundland and Labrador. As a back-to-the-land narrative set in rural Nova Scotia, Scott Fotheringham’s dystopian The Rest Is Silence plays on the trope of the Canadian wilderness as the therapeutic site for individual regeneration. At the same time that they engage with the cultural tensions of the region, each of these novels also seems to address a much broader desire on the part of the characters to reconcile themselves to specific spaces.

Although Cape Breton Island is the overarching context of Crewe’s Kin, it functions mainly as a picturesque backdrop to a long series of melodramatic episodes: a golden world in which the trials and tribulations of individual characters affirm an unambiguous faith in the strength and beauty of family. While I admit my own impatience with the “and then” narrative structure of the contemporary romance—and its plodding details, jejune dialogue, clichéd observations, inconsistent pacing, timeworn plot devices, and oppressive sentimentality and nostalgia—I do realize that novels such as Kin remain very popular. Indeed, Crewe’s previous works have been commercially successful, and online reviews frequently praise her for the familiarity of her characters and the straightforwardness of her prose. Perhaps Kin would be of interest mostly to those in need of a “life-affirming” read or an “escape.”

Although more literary in scope, Major’s New Under the Sun might offer the same kind of appeal, as a sustained fantasy of indigenization. To be fair, any shortcoming this novel may have in representing Aboriginal people and indigeneity seems unavoidable. It is to Major’s great credit that his novel is well written, nuanced, and compelling. New Under the Sun comprises four interwoven narrative sections: “Shannon,” the present featuring Shannon Carew’s move back to Newfoundland, after twenty years of living in the far North and British Columbia, to take up a position with Parks Canada; “Cormack,” the early nineteenth-century letters and journal entries of the historical figure William Cormack, most of which pertain to Shawnadithit, the last living member of the Beothuk First Nation; “Nonosa,” an unnamed novel about an Aboriginal leader, his daughter Shawna, and other members of the Maritime Archaic cultural complex that predated the Beothuk; and “Joanes,” a short story about a Basque whaler and an Aboriginal woman, Shanawdí, in sixteenth-century Labrador. As the similarities of the women’s names suggest, each narrative represents one link on a long chain of basically accidental human presence in the region. The novel thus risks presenting contemporary Aboriginal land claims as moot, especially since, as we are told at the outset, “In Newfoundland nature is a blessed snarl, humans an imposition.” If the land will claim no one, no one may claim the land.

The ways in which New Under the Sun engages with this minefield of Canadian cultural politics is, as I have mentioned, inevitably unsatisfactory. First, Shannon’s antagonistic view of “Aboriginal matters” as merely a series of “significant obstacles” to her career with Parks Canada is too easily smoothed over by the sexual relationship she strikes up with Simon, the hunky Métis “stakeholder” she must consult for a work project. Although Simon does not oppose her proposal—a reenactment of first contact between Aboriginal people and Norse settlers at the L’Anse aux Meadows National Historic Site—he does object to the way in which it presents a “sanitized version” of colonization. As Shannon remains determined to push her project forward, because “she has always been good at compartmentalizing,” the onus then falls on Simon to gently and patiently teach her to understand that colonialism is an unresolved conflict. Just as problematically, the end of the “Shannon” narrative relies on a plot twist—really as deus ex machina—in order to bring her thinking around at last. It is only after learning she might have Aboriginal ancestry that she risks her job to help Simon force the Provincial Department of Archaeology to return an Aboriginal skeleton to another Parks Canada site. Until this point, she has refused to help him because “[i]t’s not [her] fight.” As a character, Shannon has hit the indigenization jackpot, in that she can now claim some form of Aboriginality while safeguarding her white privilege: as she informs Simon of her “newfound heritage,” she also maintains that “I’m about as Métis as Snow White.” Nonetheless, her belonging to Newfoundland in the end seems to overcome the lifelong alienation she has experienced from family turmoil, estrangement, and out-migration. Whereas she had previously “never defined herself as being from Newfoundland,” she at last “sees herself turning into the generic Newfoundlander.”

Scott Fotheringham’s The Rest Is Silence also features a protagonist grappling with his rootlessness and an Aboriginal love interest. The novel is set in the wake of a worldwide catastrophe, in which genetically engineered bacteria have been unleashed to dissolve all plastics. Our narrator has retreated to the Nova Scotia wilderness, where he lives off the land in Thoreauesque fashion, creating a “Forest Garden” by growing his own food and building his own home. He also becomes sexually involved with Lina, a Wendat woman from Quebec, and attempts to come to terms with his father’s death. His first-person narrative alternates with a third-person account of the events leading up to the disaster, set in New York City. This second narrative is focused on Benita “Benny” Mosher, a PhD candidate at the Cornell University Medical College (the author’s alma mater), who is obsessed with finding a technological fix to the enormous global problem of plastic waste. Much of this narrative concerns Benny’s disillusionment with grad school and a love triangle she is involved in, before concluding with her escape from New York once her clandestine research yields its nefarious results.

Fotheringham’s engagement with the current environmental crisis is reminiscent of Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, and like that novel, The Rest is Silence presents a horrendous act of terrorism as being motivated from a position of more legitimate concern and advocacy. The end of plastic, to be clear, has dire consequences for the globalized social order since things like computers, transportation vehicles, medical equipment, and food containers can no longer function or exist as such. Benny’s narrative, however, turns out to be a cautionary tale about the dangers of unintended consequences—as well as a rejection of techno-science as the answer to our environmental crisis—since we learn that the villain of her narrative, Dr. Leach (i.e., the leaching of plastics, if not also his lechery), has been able to capitalize on the disaster she created. Moreover, he goes on to be lionized as “The Superscientist Who Saved the World” with his technological wizardry, which amounts to developing new plastics containing antibacterial heavy metals that will poison humans and the environment more than ever.

If I were to take issue with The Rest Is Silence, it would be akin to the questions I raise with Major’s novel. Fotheringham follows a long tradition of presenting the Canadian wilderness as an antimodern refuge from the feminizing enervation of the city. Urban modernity, symbolized here as the evils of plastic, means “little boys are growing tits from bisphenol A poisoning.” Contrasting the attendant confusion, alienation, deception, ambition, and greed that further typify the city, we have in The Rest Is Silence a bucolic Nova Scotia countryside featuring straight-talking folks, neighbourly cooperation, and the masculinizing effects of both physical labour and roughing it in the bush. While the role of gender in the novel, and its relationship to the wilderness and the city, is taken in an unexpected and innovative direction, authority and authenticity nevertheless remain grounded in the indigenizing potential of the wilderness. In the same vein, the easy fatalism of the novel’s final chapter—“We won’t survive” the looming destruction of the world—would too conveniently render historical injustices and the colonial struggle for unqualified belonging quite meaningless. If we have no future, then who really cares about the past? At any rate, The Rest is Silence is an interesting read, and it invites further study.

This review “Eastern Promises” originally appeared in Contested Migrations. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 219 (Winter 2013): 150-52.

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