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Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Review of FIRST SNOW, LAST LIGHT by Wayne Johnston (New Release)

4 Stars
Fourteen-year-old Ned Vatcher returns home from school one day in 1936 to discover that his parents, Edgar and Megan, have disappeared.  Though he has to live with his paternal grandparents, Nan Finn and Reg, it is Father Duggan, a Jesuit priest, and Sheilagh Fielding, a friend of his parents, who become his most stalwart supporters.  Cyril, Edgar’s brother, also remains an important character in Ned’s life, though not always in a positive way.  Various points of view are provided, but the focus is on Ned and Sheilagh. 

Ned’s entire life is driven by his parents’ disappearance.  He realizes that “to find out what had become of them would be the main goal of my life.”  He also decides that unlike his parents who were destitute and debt-ridden before their disappearance, “I would never want for money if I could help it, no matter what I had to do to get it.”  Unfortunately, he ends up losing himself.  He becomes “deaf to the tones of my own life” and feels “There simply was nothing at the innermost of me.”

Characterization is a strong element in the novel.  Ned is a dynamic character who changes as the years pass.  As mentioned, he is shaped by the mysterious disappearance of his mother and father; he spends his life “lamenting the loss of things [he] never had” and loses himself; at one point, he is pointedly told, “’I know who and what I am, Ned Vatcher.  Not everyone can say the same.’” 

Besides Ned, there are other characters who are fully developed.  Nan Finn and Sheilagh Fielding are among the most memorable.  Both are sharp-tongued, targeting those who displease them.  Nan Finn, for example, had no sympathy for Megan who was very unhappy in Newfoundland and yearned to return to London:  “’I can tell by those eyes of hers.  It’s a wonder dinner gets cooked what with her being so busy bawling and wishing she was there instead of here. . . . What do people do in London? . . . Sit around and talk to each other with their eyes closed.  I better keep busy or I’ll get bored and long for London.’”  Sheilagh’s targets are the rich and powerful; she writes a regular newspaper column in which she exposes their foibles and hypocrisies.

Sheilagh appears in the previous two novels of the Newfoundland Trilogy:  The Colony of Unrequited Dreams and The Custodian of Paradise.  Both titles are actually mentioned by Sheilagh.  It is not necessary to read these books first, but they do provide background to events which are mentioned in this third book.  This book brings Sheilagh’s story to a close.  It has been a while since I read the first two novels in the series and I think I may go back to them. 

Abandonment and disappearance are central motifs in the novel.  Edgar and Megan disappear and leave Ned feeling abandoned.  Sheilagh disappeared from the lives of her children and ends up feeling abandoned herself.  Prowse abandoned Sheilagh and his children and in the end “There was no sign in [his eyes] of anything.”  Phonse, Ned’s uncle, vanished at sea on a calm day and was never found; Nan Finn, in particular, tries to understand what happened to him.  Ned adopts a child but makes a fateful decision which he comes to regard as his worst mistake, “his sin against his son, which was all too similar to the one that Edgar and Megan committed against him – abandonment to the hands of strangers.”

Even Newfoundland is abandoned when there is a vote to join Canada; Sheilagh muses about “the colony of unrequited dreams that would never be acknowledged as a nation except by those of us who made it one.”  Appropriately, the books about Newfoundland that are collected by both Edgar and Ned are lost or damaged.  And it is surely significant that The Last Newfoundlander loses his voice because of a botched operation.

As a former English teacher, I loved the many literary allusions.  Sheilagh has a room in a brothel; she paraphrases T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”:  I grow old, I grow old.  In the rooms the women come and go, talking of Mike and Al and Joe.”  Ned alludes to Joseph Conrad’s novel when he speaks of being “in quest of the heart of no one’s darkness but my own.”  Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar makes an appearance (“’I come to query Cyril, not to please him’”) as does The Tempest (“’We are all such stuff as murder is made of’”).

One theme is that “you can taint your whole life by doing one thing wrong” so “even a good man might be the engine of a tragedy.”  This theme is mentioned both at the beginning and the end and developed through the lives of several characters. 

Though the book is more than a mystery, interest is certainly maintained throughout as to what happened to the Vanishing Vatchers.  Just like Ned, the reader will find him/herself trying to learn what happened to Edgar and Megan and why no trace of them was found.  There are sufficient clues given so an astute reader may guess the solution. 

I have enjoyed Wayne Johnston’s previous novels and this one is no exception.  It is great literary fiction with memorable characters, carefully developed themes, and a strong sense of place.  

Note:  I received an eARC of this book from the publisher via NetGalley.