With a poet's sensitivity to words and images, and a ballad-singer's awareness of cadences and narrative tension, Michael Crummey creates a rich novel of Newfoundland from the nineteenth century through World War I. Deftly combining the brutal realities of subsistence fishermen with the mythic tales that give hope to their lives, he traces the lives of two families through six generations in Paradise Deep and the Gut, rural areas worlds away from life in St. John's. With its huge scope in time and its limited scope in location, the novel honors the characters' resilience as they struggle to survive during times of extreme privation, while also celebrating the stories and long-held myths which give interest and even hope to their lives.
When the novel opens in the middle of a long winter, the population is close to starving and all have gathered along the shore to slaughter a beached whale. When they finally cut open the stomach, however, "[a] head appeared...a human head, the hair bleached white." Named "Judah," a combination of Jonah and Judas, the man is completely solitary, blamed at first for the poor fishing, then celebrated when he rows out with the men on a fishing trip and the bad luck for the fleet changes. Other stories also achieve immortality in community lore--the ability of the Kerrivan tree to cure illnesses, the belief in merwomen, and the tales of the local priest, who "operates outside the bounds of church and state." Biblical names, some of them ironic, pervade the novel. Mary Tryphena, Absalom, Lazarus, and Abel exist alongside Ann Hope, Martha, and Virtue.
The lives of the interconnected Devine and Sellers families, usually enemies, show the changes in the community over the next generations. A new priest from the Church of England changes the "rules" of the community, and churches are built. Prices for the fishermen's catches fluctuate, and King-me Sellers, a local judge, merchant, and government representative, cheats them out of their profits and their land. The old myths get forgotten, and Judah's reputation for luck declines. Part II takes place thirty years after that. Fishing is so depleted that the men now go to Labrador to fish, leaving their families to fend for themselves for up to six months at a time. Politics becomes a fight between the Catholics and Protestants. The buyers of their fish continue to cheat the fishermen, and eventually a Fishermen's Protective Union evolves. The passage of a law of conscription leads to the formation of a Newfoundland Regiment for World War I.
The individual stories of the two main families over six generations here are complex, and two helpful genealogies at the beginning of the book may become well-worn as the reader tries to keep the characters all straight. Though the book generally follows a chronological sequence, the individual stories move back and forth in time. It is common for the author to present a character in a certain set of circumstances, then to backtrack many years to show how those circumstances evolved, and, conversely, to hint at one outcome in one place and not develop the rest of the story for many pages. This study of the early fishing families of Newfoundland should appeal to those who enjoy family sagas, and the author's study of the beliefs which make their lives meaningful and hopeful resonates through time. Mary Whipple