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Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Birthday Review - "Sweetland" by Michael Crummey

As I mentioned in yesterday’s blog, today is Margaret Atwood’s 76th birthday, but there is another Canadian poet and novelist who celebrates a landmark birthday today.  November 18, 2015 is the 50th birthday of Michael Crummey, a writer from Newfoundland.  He has written four novels:  River Thieves, The Wreckage, Galore, and Sweetland, all of which I recommend.  In honour of the author’s birthday, I’m posting my review of his most recent novel which recently appeared on the longlist of the 2016 International Dublin Literary Award.

Review of Sweetland
4 Stars
Seventy-year-old Moses Sweetland lives in the outport of Chance Cove on an island off the southern coast of Newfoundland. The inhabitants of this island – named for Moses’ family – have been offered a substantial financial incentive to relocate. The proviso is that everyone has to accept the offer but, not surprisingly, Moses is the last holdout. Moses’ life on the island in its waning comprises the first half of the novel: “The whole place was going under, and almost everyone it mattered to was already in the ground” (92). The second half details Moses’ solitary life after he fakes his death just before the last Sweetlanders leave.

Moses is certainly memorable. Just as I have never forgotten Hagar Shipley in Margaret Laurence’s The Stone Angel, I am unlikely to forget this character. Initially, he seems to be an old curmudgeon but gradually we discover, especially through his relationship with his great-nephew Jesse, that he is capable of great love and compassion. Through flashbacks, we learn about the events that shaped Moses’ life and come to understand the reasons for his brusque exterior.

Many of the other inhabitants also come to life as fully realized characters. Many have an eccentric trait which distinguishes them, but that does not mean they are flat characters; they prove to be complex people with both positive and negative qualities. Duke Fewer, the barber who for 20 years has never actually cut hair or shaved any man, is one example of someone who emerges as being more than first impressions suggest.

In the second part of the novel, Moses is the only living resident on Sweetland, but he has several phantoms for company. At times I found myself wondering whether Moses had actually died and was himself a spectre, especially considering the last conversation in Part I, so I kept looking for Pincher Martin clues. In that vein, the constantly incorrect weather forecasts are suspicious: “there wasn’t a single reliable detail in the announcements. As if the island had drifted into its own latitude, beyond the reach of the CBC’s meteorologists” (293).

Moses does a lot of thinking about life and death as he struggles to preserve island life from vanishing. He muses that “A life was no goddamn thing in the end . . . Bits and pieces of make-believe cobbled together to look halfways human, like some stick-and-rag doll meant to scare crows out of the garden. No goddamn thing at all” (141). Our place in the universe is like that of people set adrift in a lifeboat: “To be set adrift without warning or explanation, with nothing to say if they would ever be found. Or if anyone was even looking for them. Orphaned on an ocean that seems endless” (143). And there is no stopping change: “There was a new world being built around him. . . . The generations of instinct they’d relied on to survive here suddenly useless . . . like the VHS machines and analog televisions dumped on the slope beyond the incinerator. Relics of another time and on their way out” (277).

This novel, like all of Crummey’s books, has realistic characters confronting universal issues. Furthermore, there is the Newfoundland setting which is painted so vividly; by the time the novel comes to an end, the reader is left feeling he/she could fill in the names on a map of Sweetland.

To read this book is to indeed enter a sweet land and, like Moses, to feel “of a sudden like singing” (318).