A way of life is compromised and threatened, and life goes stubbornly on, in the Canadian author’s third novel, following Downhill Chance (2003).
Set in small villages along the Newfoundland fishing banks during the 1950s, it’s the story of two families whose meager fortunes wax and wane as the business of cod-fishing is shaped by depleted resources, restrictive government policies and new technologies that render old ways obsolete (e.g., “Freezing fish is a better way of keeping them than salting. Bigger boats is a better way of catching them”). Morrissey dramatizes such changes in the experiences of the eponymous Sylvanus, hardy youngest son of a clan whose father and eldest son perished at sea, and headstrong Adelaide, the first-born in a sprawling crowd of siblings, whom their perpetually pregnant mother Florry has appointed “Addie” to care for. Dreaming of a fuller life, Addie marries doggedly devoted Sylvanus, who builds her a house, works tirelessly for her and gives her three babies, all stillborn, and buried in modest graves that the embittered Addie cannot bring herself to visit. Years pass; the families of Ragged Rock (Addie’s hometown) and Cooney Arm (where the Nows reside) struggle to survive, avoid the threat of government “resettlement” and adjust to the lingering burdens of their memories and their ghosts. And Morrissey’s people—stoical Sylvanus and resilient Addie (whose intimate moments and violent arguments alike throb with painful credibility), their hardbitten and longsuffering parents and relations—assume a near-mythic intensity reminiscent of Halldór Laxness’s epic portrayals of indomitable working souls. No conventional happy ending is possible, but reconciliation and acceptance are achieved, in a moving dénouement that proves the truth of Florry’s weary pronouncement, “If it weren’t for keeping things simple, nothing would ever get done.”
Absorbing human drama, in Morrissey’s best yet.