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A Bit of String

February 1, 2009
The Shipping News

The Shipping News

The Shipping News
By Annie Proulx

Canada has an accessible bleakness. Something about its barrenness is romantic to most of us. We like the idea of going hiking in the mountains, staying in Banff’s palace in the forest. But Canada has a wilderness so bare, so remote, so demanding, that it produces people with very little romance left in them. This is perhaps particularly the case in Newfoundland, Annie Proulx would suggest.

Her second novel, The Shipping News, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. It is a novel that is about the land as much as it is about its inhabitants. Proulx, who lives part of the year in Newfoundland, has an intimate acquaintance with this icy frontier and her powerful prose speaks of that intimacy. She has a fondness for fragments and likes to tell you things plainly; sometimes she likes to tell you things before she lets you discover them yourself. But her style is very likable, attractive, strong; she sounds like an intimidating woman. But one who knows how to tell a great story.

Quoyle, a huge, plain, straightforward man with a prominent chin, moves his two young daughters, Bunny and Sunshine, to the empty roughness of Newfoundland after his unfaithful, flaky wife dies in a car accident. He moves with his scrappy aunt into the difficult, beautiful land of his ancestors. Proulx drags Quoyle along a lyric thread of family history, pain, mystery and human connection against the odds. And we, as the reader, are more than happy to follow him.

Quoyle is delightfully simple. He is not handsome or smart or heroic. He loved a woman who was stupid and mean and cheated on him. A lot of things about Newfoundland scare him. But he is deeply lovable and Proulx is always reminding us of this, Quoyle’s intrinsic goodness. 

Despite having any background in journalism, Quoyle finds a job as a columnist for the local newspaper, The Gammy Bird, as a columnist–first, about car accidents, some of which are real, some of which he is told to invent, and then as the faithful chronicler of the shipping news.

The crew of The Gammy Bird is a hilarious assortment of Dickensian characters, with names that sound like they were plucked right out of Oliver Twist: Tert Card, Jack Buggit, Billy Pretty. These rough, weathered men form a circle around Quoyle and, in their own tangled, occasionally unethical ways, help him discover a little bit about living without regrets.

Gradually, despite the mysteries and sorrows, Quoyle and his daughters come to love the place and form an attachment to it. Proulx charts this growth with a sensitive yet sharp-edged attention; her writing is cold and clear and pristine. It’s a beautiful thing to read. Quoyle finally acknowledges that he is devoted to this barren wasteland of ice and sea.

Quoyle was not going back to New York, either. If life was an arc of light that began in darkness, ended in darkness, the first part of his life had happened in ordinary glare. Here it was as thought he had found a polarized lens that deepened and intensified all seen through it.

The last lines of the novel just kill me. I think they provide not only a flawlesss ending, but a suitable summary of Proulx’s endearing and distinctive style:

For if Jack Buggit could escape from the pickle jar, if a bird with a broken neck could fly away, what else might be possible? Water may be older than light, diamonds crack in hot goat’s blood, mountaintops give off cold fire, forests appear in mid-ocean, it may happen that a crab is caught with the shadow of a hand on its back, that the wind be imprisoned in a bit of knotted string. And it may be that love sometimes occurs without pain or misery.

In concordance with the newspaper headline motif, if I had to write one for this book: Tough Writer Meets Tough Land, Writes Beautiful Novel.

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