Linked episodes in the life of an émigré from a Portuguese fishing community in the Azores trace bitter legacies through three generations.
Barnacle love, meaning painfully conflicted passion—powerfully realized in the image of a marriage bed strewn with glass and barnacle shells in the title story—is the emotion that haunts Canadian De Sa’s dark, lyrical, sparely evoked sequence of tales, a finalist for the Giller Prize. Complicated connections between parents and children mark several stories, notably “Of God and Cod,” in which central figure Manuel Rebelo, favored by his harsh mother over his siblings, escapes the mid-Atlantic island of his birth and is almost drowned. Rescue will lead to romance, then a revelation of deception, in “Reason to Blame,” and as Manuel’s life unravels, so new disappointments occur. The title story explains his marriage to Georgina, not his first choice. And the volume’s second half, narrated by his son Antonio, exposes the parents’ unhappiness and Manuel’s financial failure. “Senhor Canada” observes Manuel and Antonio on Canada Day, the father drunk and sentimentally patriotic, the son consumed with shame. Sometimes overemphatic, the narrative sequence is threaded with themes and symbols: broken glass, suspicions of the church, “good hurt,” the need to escape. Manuel’s frustration and despair reach their apogee in “Mr. Wong Presents Jesus,” in which tragedy hovers on Christmas Eve.
Intense, melancholy, occasionally overworked, De Sa’s brooding debut illumines displacement and despair with glinting literary highlights.