One of contemporary fiction’s most memorable characters dominates this hefty companion volume to the prizewinning Canadian author’s 1999 masterpiece The Colony of Unrequited Dreams.
That novel told the Dickensian story of Newfoundlander (and historical character) Joseph Smallwood’s circuitous ascent to the positions of provincial prime minister and father of its act of union (or “confederation”) with Canada in 1949. Here, Smallwood figures only peripherally in an exhaustive dramatization of the afflicted, stoical and intrepid emotional life of the woman who was his childhood friend and enemy, soul mate and scourge and—oddly—his de facto muse. Sheilagh Fielding (known to all by only her surname)—crippled daughter of an embittered physician, abandoned by her mother when she was six, a prodigy of “mockery” whose sharp tongue found expression in caustic newspaper commentary on all things provincial and conventional—was the engine that drove Colony’s irresistible plot; the harpy to whom “Joey” Smallwood was, without realizing it, forever trying to prove himself. Her story begins here with Fielding’s retreat, during the waning days of WWII, to the uninhabited island of Loreburn, off Newfoundland’s western coast, and life alone in a restored house (whose provenance is a story in itself), where she relives her past, perusing a trunkful of letters, diaries and (acerbic and hilarious) newspaper columns. Juggling his materials expertly, Johnston constructs an absorbing patchwork narrative, which artfully reveals Sheilagh’s lonely girlhood, the scandal and pregnancy that send her to New York City and force her to surrender to the wishes of her remarried mother, then her unhappy return to Newfoundland, and further solitude, estrangement and bereavement. And on Loreburn, less removed from the present than she believes, Fielding is forced into a confrontation with the ghosts of her past that even this consummate pessimist could not have foreseen.
Johnston may be the best of all the 21st century’s neo-Victorian novelists, and this riveting three-decker is not to be missed.