Sense and Senselessness

  • Maura Hanrahan
    Sheilagh’s Brush.
  • Craig Francis Power
    Blood Relatives. Pedlar Press
Reviewed by Heidi Butler

Craig Francis Power’s perspective on contemporary St. John’s and Maura Hanrahan’s exploration of a 1920s outport community both examine the choices available to characters who feel they must make sense out of senseless situations. In doing so, these novels offer refreshing perspectives on themes popular in Newfoundland literature. The dark humour of Blood Relatives and the complex relationships among family and community members in Sheilagh’s Brush help the novels avoid re-presenting tired narratives. Instead, they deliver compelling stories of survival and attachment.

In Blood Relatives, Power presents Charlie, a thirty-one-year-old custodian who attempts to reconcile his difficult relationship with his deceased father. Charlie feels alone in a community of social outcasts, including Sam, Charlie’s gay brother; Eva, Sam’s transgendered wife; Hank, Charlie’s alcoholic friend; and Theresa, a local prostitute. The hopelessness and chaos in which Charlie feels immersed might easily overwhelm the novel, but Power skilfully uses black humour to highlight the absurdity of Charlie’s life. Charlie’s attempts toward a “normal” life will inevitably fail, as Power suggests that his characters will never form uncomplicated relationships or live easily ever after. Charlie identifies how inaccessible such a simple life is when, during a gathering at which the group attempts to conjure the spirit of Charlie’s late father, he thinks, “I felt like I was at the beginning of some awful joke. So a gay Newfie, a transsexual Newfie, a terribly depressed Newfie, and two Newfie whores are holding a séance.” This scene, like many others in the novel, leaves readers unsure whether Charlie’s situation is tragic or funny. Ultimately, his life is simply absurd—a mixture of tragedy and comedy that charms even as it suffocates.

Hanrahan’s Sheilagh’s Brush also presents a theme familiar in Newfoundland literature: that of rural inhabitants pitted in a battle against the land and, sometimes, against each other. However, no simple choices are available for the people of Rennie’s Bay; Hanrahan skilfully explores the ways in which characters can take responsibility for their actions and the extent to which they can survive uncontrollable tragedies. Protagonist Sheilagh Driscoll and her younger sister Claire Farrell are among a group of women who feel doomed to produce and raise large families at the expense of their physical and emotional well-being. Neither woman is presented as infallible; this is especially true of Sheilagh, whose relationship with her daughter Leah seems both endearingly protective and disturbingly possessive. Such depth is not always common in representations of outport women, but Hanrahan’s characters are complex individuals who are often forced to make difficult choices. Only by controlling her reproductive decisions, and by supporting her sister in her choices, can Sheilagh remain in the town to which she feels strongly connected and can Claire pursue her dream of leaving the outport. Like Power, Hanrahan evokes Newfoundland’s people and landscape without essentializing either and suggests that absurd situations are best endured by embracing others who pursue the meaning hidden in senselessness.

This review “Sense and Senselessness” originally appeared in Canadian Literature 216 (Spring 2013): 187-88.

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