Sweetland, by Michael Crummey, Doubleday Canada
It may be that no man is an island, but Sweetland comes pretty close.
Moses Sweetland is the crusty hero of Michael Crummey’s brilliant new novel. Sweetland is also the island settled by Moses’s forebears – a chip off the old Rock – to which Moses clings with a tenacity that may be irrational. His neighbours have taken the government buyout and decamped, cash in hand, to St. John’s or further afield; they left the dishes in the cupboards, the sheets on the beds and their loved ones in the graveyard. Not Sweetland. He can’t bring himself to leave his dead.
Newfoundland has no shortage of writers to tell its history and its current affairs. Wayne Johnston, Jessica Grant, siblings Michael and Kathleen Winter, Michelle Butler Hallett, Lisa Moore and Donna Morrissey, to mention just a few, have all brought Newfoundland to readers. Like John Steffler, whose novel The Afterlife of George Cartwright is a hallucinatory tale of the colonial experiences of one of the first Europeans in Labrador, Michael Crummey brings an accomplished poet’s skilful pen and keen eye to his fiction. Also, like Steffler, Crummey has written a dense and unsentimental account of the early history of Europeans in Newfoundland: his first novel, the masterpiece River Thieves. An epic account of terrible change, it takes place at the moment of the death of Demasduwit, a historical figure who may have been the last of the Boethuk.
In Sweetland, Crummey brings all that imaginative power, poetic skill, and uncommon compassion to telling the lives of the man and the island, each weathering yet another rending time of transition. In spite of the coercive visits from the government man and pressure from the other islanders, who either want the buyout money or are tired of the isolation and hardship of life on the island, Sweetland refuses to leave. Living in the house where he grew up, snaring rabbits and catching cod in open water during the food fishery, keeping up his supply of homebrew, Sweetland is attached to the land and the sea and his own history, woven in with the physical place and the handful of other humans who live in it with him.
Crummey has populated Sweetland with several generations of vivid and distinctly drawn characters. Queenie Coffin, a chain-smoking agoraphobic who sits by the window of her house and reads romance novels her daughter sends her from Alberta; the wild Priddle brothers, Irish twins who make piles of money in Fort Mac and then come home every three or four weeks to drink it all away; and the aptly named Loveless and his unfortunate cow. Crummey has the gift of making colourful characters with any number of quirks and failings, and yet he never treats them with anything less than respect and a rough kind of affection; it is this that makes them all, even the most marginal, compellingly believable and engaging.
And engaged the reader will be. The physical setting, on land or sea, is as vibrant with sensuous detail as the lively people; the icy seawater lashes your back, the rotten snow collapses beneath your boot, the sky is full of sea birds, and the stink of the accumulated shit of their generations inhabits your nose as you sail past their bare cliffs. Without romanticizing anything, Crummey makes it beautiful.
The story of Sweetland’s simple life is complex, full of intrigue and humming with emotion. Crummey is an astonishingly deft plotter, revealing with incredible dexterity the long, knotty histories of the people and the place. In the end, the story of Sweetland – dreamlike, sometimes nightmarish, gently celebratory and gravely and gorgeously elegiac – slips over into eternity.
Elise Moser’s most recent book is Lily and Taylor, from Groundwood. She is currently editing Salut King Kong, the anthology of the past three years’ winners and runners-up for the Quebec Writing Competition.
-photo: Aitor Méndez, Wikimedia Media Commons