Sylvia Taylor must have been aware of the Fisher King, the Holy Grail legend that provided the inspiration for the film by Terry Gilliam, when she chose the title for her rich and beautifully written memoir about her season as a deckhand on a B.C. salmon troller. The legend teaches a lesson about how elusive the object of a quest can be, and how pride obscures the wisdom necessary to find the treasure. A similar lesson lies at the heart of The Fisher Queen, though pride is never tainted by vainglory, and the treasure morphs as the story unfolds. The money she hopes to make as a deckhand becomes something of ineffably greater value.
Fresh from a sour divorce and newly whole after a devastating car wreck, the young Taylor signs on aboard Central Isle, a forty-year-old wooden fishing boat, and heads four hundred miles North with its owner, Paul. “I was in love with this charming, dark blooded man as sexy as the devil’s own tail,” she says. Taylor is a vivid, full-throated writer, often spinning out sentences that ask to be read again, just for the fun if it. She is also clear-eyed about the rip-roaring yarn she’s telling, seeing herself and all those around her with admirable even handedness. This is no easy thing for one so passionate and full of life. The epilogue tells us that many years had passed before the book insisted itself upon her. I doubt it would have been possible any sooner.
A greenhorn when she steps aboard, she’s burning to know about the management of the boat and running the gear. She wants to be an equal to the taciturn, and by times cruel in his silence, Paul. This is a love affair fraught with danger and difficulty, and Taylor shows it openly, giving us an understanding of both characters. This is to her enormous credit. While describing her own confusion and fears, she still manages to grant Paul his humanity. Though he nearly kills them both by setting off to fish in appalling conditions, Taylor’s rendering of the scene is measured.
Here I should disclose that I live in an East Coast fishing community and have sailed far in deep water. I know the world Taylor describes, and am all the more impressed because I do. Her descriptions of how things are done, how the gear works, and most especially, of the mad microcosm that fisherfolk inhabit ring true from start to finish. And more important, her own relationship to the vast impartial sea and the harsh and beautiful lessons it holds for those who ply its depths lie fierce and true at the heart of the book. In the harrowing chapter entitled The Great Grey Beast, Taylor writes, “I knew what waited for us just around the corner – a howling Grey Beast with a taste for wood and bones ranging down the inlet, flinging itself against the sheltering wooded walls of that tiny harbour. And who would be foolish enough to pit themselves against this monster? Fisherfolk … desperate with worry and exhaustion.”
Sylvia Taylor does find her Grail in this fine memoir, and it will inform and enrich the rest of her life. The Fisher Queen will inform and enrich yours.
Author, actor, director and songwriter Tom Gallant clocked 50,000 miles of deep water sailing in his Nova Scotia schooner before siting down to write a novel, The Lord God Bird, published by Quantuck Lane Press. www.tomgallant.com