(Reviewed as part of the Classics Club Challenge and the Prizewinner Challenge)
Annie Proulx is one of those authors who has been on the periphery of my literary map for years. The Shipping News moved her much closer to the centre of my literary universe. I remembered the film and that’s unusual: films often blur for me and frequently I don’t recall having seen them until I watch them again, supposedly for the first time. So when this book was selected for a book club read I was delighted. A film that had left a mark and an author that I’ve wanted to experience for some years: perfect! And indeed it was.
I read this book in June – possibly around the time that I was drawing up my Classics Club list. Published in 1993, it’s one of the most recent books on my list and doesn’t really qualify to be on the list at all, being just the wrong side of the 25-year rule. But it will qualify by the time I’ve worked through my list and rules are made to be bent a bit. How often do we automatically marry off ‘classic’ with ‘age’ when thinking of books? It won the Pulitzer prize for fiction in 1994: does winning a major award confer classics status? Does it guarantee longevity or universal appeal? Questions such as these form part of the reason I decided to tackle my own prizewinner challenge. What can books written a century ago tell us about society at the time? What do we learn from knowing what was considered prize-worthy at that time? What can The Shipping News tell us about society and what was considered prize-worthy as the last century was drawing to a close?
And of course – regardless of these wider questions – would I include The Shipping News in my own personal canon of classics? The answer to that final question is an unequivocal ‘yes’, for Proulx has, amongst other things, created a novel that captures much of what is important to me in a book – and alerted me to a few things I hadn’t appreciated were important. My understanding of what I like in a book has evolved through reading this one. And having learned a little more since finishing it, my understanding and appreciation will evolve still further when I read it again – which I surely will. It has all the hallmarks of a personal classic and it merits its place on my list.
The Shipping News is a book about a place and the people within that place. The landscape is not the backdrop for the story: this book is born of the environment, which shares equal billing with events and characters – neither of which could be as they are without the harsh wildness; the uncompromising landscape; the vicious mercurial weather; and the precarious ecology and economy that Proulx presents to her reader in graphic clarity.
We have two protagonists. There is Newfoundland, contemporary and traditional: the life, the culture, the people – all of which are struggling to survive in a harsh and uncompromising geography. And there is Quoyle: huge, hapless, tender-hearted, put-upon Quoyle – struggling himself to survive in an equally harsh and unforgiving inner landscape. On one level, this is essentially a hero-quest novel. On another, it is a wonderful immersion in an environment. Environmental literature is a genre I hadn’t realised existed. There is a plot, of course; but this book is not plot-driven; it is an exercise in sense of place on many levels.
I’d signed up to a novel about Newfoundland. I adore bleakly beautiful, sparsely-populated northern climes in literature. That in itself was enough to have me anticipating. However, the book begins in bustling and gritty New York. Quoyle’s early life is summed up succinctly as the book opens. I felt great sympathy for him, although others may well find his spinelessness irritating. Each misfortune compounded by the next, Quoyle, when we meet him, is a leaf blown in the wind with no grip on the world and an innocence that has left him used and abused by his dominating father, Guy, and later by his ghastly and promiscuous wife, Petal. The only ray of sunshine in his life (apart from his two daughters, one of whom is named Sunshine) is his friendship with Partridge: who sees the goodness in Quoyle and the joy in life.
After a series of events – described in the no-nonsense abbreviated language adopted throughout the book, and liberally sprinkled with macabre humour – Quoyle finds himself as a single-father to his two young daughters, heartbroken and alone in a city where he has no place and no future. And then the aunt arrives. They leave New York and return to Newfoundland – home of their forebears – and the story really begins.
The remainder of the book follows Quoyle as gingerly, he finds his place in this harsh new world: the home of his ancestors. His aunt and father were born here; the old family house features large in the tale. We meet a host of memorable local characters: eccentric, vivid, and brimming with life. Within the stories told by the various characters as Quoyle begins to find his feet – within their lives and their histories; their dreams and their prejudices – we discover the history and the life force that underpins these remote communities. We learn about the way of life – the traditional way of life as well as modern-day existence – and the confrontations between the two. There are many skirmishes. Dwindling fish stocks and dwindling populations; profit-driven oil companies; the lure of warmer climes and material comforts pulling locals away … the precariousness of an individual life and the fragility of the continued existence of these close-knit communities are always close to the surface.
The book is peppered with dark humour; not something I usually enjoy in a book but in this instance it felt absolutely right. The abbreviated writing style is something I would never have imagined myself enjoying or feeling comfortable with – but along with the humour, it suited the book, the characters and the landscape perfectly. And there is lyricism in the book. Proulx’s descriptions of the landscape: the vagaries of the weather; the cruelty of the ever-changing sea, are vivid, evocative and masterful. I have learned that in the writing of this book she made nine extended trips to the area, beginning in 1988. She was immersed in the culture, the people and the landscape – and through her words, so was I.
Proulx credits the shape of the novel to a book she found at a yard sale for 25 cents: The Ashley Book of Knots. She begins each chapter with a line from the Book of Knots or from sea-related manuals. These are frequently signposts into the chapter but they can also be considered as something more. The opening chapter tells us that a quolye is a coil which can be rolled up and walked upon on the deck of a ship. Before we have even met him, Quoyle’s character is signposted. The idea of knots can also be considered alongside human relationships. Knots – and relationships – can be tied and untied; formed, unformed and reformed. And knots keep the book real. Throughout the story there are dreams and magic; myth and legend and tall tales, though the landscape and the challenges it presents never wavered for me in being bitingly real. The quotations – practical tips and helpful instructions for a northerly maritime life amidst cold and snow and deprivation – keep the book grounded. They stem from actual manuals – instruction books. They introduce a totally different genre: the type of book that the practical Newfoundlanders would mostly likely read themselves. And they contrast with the more poetic of Proulx’s prose and keep the book anchored in the physical. A reader such as I, happily transported by all things ethereal, is regularly brought back to reality with instructions on the rolling, or the slippery, or the half-hitch – and how to prevent pictures on the wall from rolling with the swell of the sea.
Alongside social and economic change, The Shipping News embraces themes such as ancestry and family roots, finding one’s place; tradition, regional lifestyle and oral history. It is darkly comic and poignantly sad. It is harsh and uncompromising, and humanly warm and welcoming. It is a richly gilded tapestry of life both human and physical. As I read the book, much of this passed me by. I just enjoyed the wide environmental sweep; the quirky humour; the novelty of being seduced by a landscape unknown to me in a prose style unfamiliar to me. And I relished the simple pleasures of a love story: a man finding peace and happiness after a lifetime of loneliness and failure. Setting aside the environmental agenda and the wider themes, The Shipping News is a story of healing and acceptance. It’s an exploration of what love is. Quoyle, slowly and painfully, comes to understand that love can come in more than “… the basic black of none and the red heat of obsession”. At the end of the book, in the final understated sentence, he acknowledges that: “It may be that love sometimes occurs without pain or misery.”
Like a much-loved painting, I found this a beautiful and memorable book that I shall return to with pleasure.