Michael Crummey. Sweetland. Toronto: Doubleday Canada, 2014.
Man loves island; man leaves island; man returns to island. That tells you nothing about what a rich and satisfying book this is. Newfoundland outport life is full to the brim with exceptional characters in joys and heartbreaks. Shortlisted for the Governor General's Literary Award, it's one of those novels that defines a slice of Canada. Moses Sweetland is a retired lighthouse keeper, a lifelong resident of the island that bears his family name. The tiny cove community where he lives has been ordered to pack up and evacuate the island forever. Moses is the last holdout, for reasons he can't express; only a tragedy changes his mind temporarily.
After we are well-introduced to island life we begin to understand the family interactions, their affinity with nature, their acceptance of loss and death, their love and humour. Moses, like most, is unable to articulate his inner feelings yet we share every reaction that goes through him. Attachment to his grand-nephew Jesse is gruff and touching. There is also a bittersweet touch of mystery and suspense about survival in an unforgiving environment. Anyone who loved Proulx's The Shipping News will appreciate the deeper resonance here. I could sense within the first few pages that this is a masterpiece. Definitely not one to miss!
One-liner: They can put a man on the moon, she told him, we can bloody well have a flush toilet. (31)
The government man gestured past him to the counter. "You have a laptop there."
Sweetland glanced over his shoulder as if to confirm the fact. "We got the internet for long ago. Does my banking on that," he said. "Bit of online poker. Passes the time." Sweetland poured the tea and took a seat directly across the table.
"You're not on Facebook, are you?"
"Look at this face," he said and the government man glanced down at the table. "Now Arsebook," Sweetland said. "That's something I'd sign up for."
"I'm sure it's coming."
"I wouldn't doubt it. Given the state of things." (6-7)
It was Uncle Clar who framed out the girl's coffin in his shop after she died. Sweetland was with him as Queenie's father shouted the child's height and her breadth at the shoulder through a window, Uncle Clar jotting the measurements on a scrap of wood. Queenie was standing against the far wall behind her father, though he couldn't see her face for shadow and she wouldn't lift her head to look his way.
Poor little lamb, Clar repeated a hundred times as he sawed and planed the boards, as he nailed and sanded and varnished. (80)
Tell us about the orange you used to get in the wool sock you had for a stocking, Pilgrim.
And you was lucky to get that, the blind man said, swinging his glass wide enough the drink lipped over the side. We'd keep the orange peel, he said, and soak it in a glass of water with a bit of sugar. And we'd drink that down, honey-sweet.
How many generations of youngsters have he bored to death with that story, I wonder.
He bored me to death with it, Clara said and rolled her eyes.
Oh kiss my arse, Pilgrim said, the both of you. He tried to get to his feet and failed, the ice in his glass rattling onto the floor. Jesus, he said. (256)
Phillip Margolin. Woman With a Gun. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2014.
Here's a challenge to keep your head straight with the story's timeline jumping. It took awhile before I felt engaged. A celebrated photograph inspires a would-be novelist to meet with people involved in the old unsolved Cahill murder case; and so Stacey Kim becomes the present-day catalyst for more killing. Lawyers, police, the victim's associates, and the photographer herself are drawn into circumstances far from dead. Set in Oregon between Portland and a small beach town, the story follows the activities of several characters. The investigator Oscar and prosecutor Jack are slow on the uptake, missing some questions and clues obvious to a good reader, then take an inordinately long time to twig.
I had trouble at times with the switch between 2005 and 2015 sequences, but maybe that's just me. Some events had to be repeated from hindsight, a tricky device. It almost seemed as if a drug addiction occurred twice. When someone stabs Stacey ("buried a knife in her chest"!) she makes a remarkable recovery in a matter of one or two days (credibility, please). This is not particularly absorbing writing or exciting reading―I've found other Margolin novels more engrossing.
Jack plays tough (not):
Chartres looked panicky. His attorney told him to shut up.
"Look, Bernie, I'm gonna be honest. You've got a pretty clean record. A couple of minor assaults but nothing that would indicate you'd blow the shit out of anyone. But you're also the only suspect I've got. So, unless you help me―and, by helping me, help yourself―I'm going to be forced to bring the full weight of the law down on you. You know that old saying about a bird in the hand being worth two in the bush?"
Bernie didn't look like he had any idea why Jack was talking about birds.
"Well, you're the bird I have in my hand, and I don't have any other birds or any idea who the other little birds at the motel were." Jack squeezed his open hand into a tight fist. "So you're the only bird I can crush at this time." (61)
Ian Rankin. The Beat Goes On. UK: Orion Books, 2014.
I was so desperate to get this new Rankin, haunting the limited open hours of the FEC Library till various laggards returned the book, I didn't realize it was a short story collection. Twenty-nine of them. Short stories are not something I normally seek (Alice Munro an exception), probably because I want a good tale to go on and on forever entwining me in puzzle-solving. Therefore I had to resolve to stay the course with this one, obviously because it is Rebus! Two things new to me were the names of his ex-wife (Rhona) and daughter (Samantha). Also a girlfriend Jean preceded Siobhan. Each vignette of the man's crime-solving adventures in Edinburgh is fresh and savoury. This, despite the genre demanding more exposition than action. Rebus remains true to himself over years of Rankin's writings. So worth it! See you in the Oxford Bar in May!
Detective Constable Holmes:
Why did Rebus have to be such a clever bugger so much of the time? He seemed always to go into a case at an odd angle, like someone cutting a paper shape which, apparently random, could then be folded to make an origami sculpture, intricate and recognisable.
"Too clever for his own good," he said to himself. But what he meant was that his superior was too clever for Holmes' own good. (110)
The day after a close call:
It was good of Holmes to look in, no matter what the motive. And it was good of him not to stay, too. Rebus needed time to be alone, needed time and space enough to think. He had told Holmes he never thought about it, never thought about death. That was a lie; he thought about it all the time. (148)
New Year's Eve:
Rebus shivered and turned away. Four minutes to midnight. He hated crowds. Hated drunken crowds more. Hated the fact that another year was coming to an end. He began to push through the crowd with a little more force than necessary. (150-151)
He bought a National Lottery ticket when opportunity arose, but often didn't get round to checking the numbers. He had half a dozen tickets lying around, any one of which could be his fortune. He quite liked the notion that he might have won a million and not know it; preferred it, in fact, to the idea of actually having the million in his bank account. What would he do with a million pounds? Same as he'd do with fifty thou – self-destruct.
Only faster. (302)
Rankin himself on Rebus & Edinburgh:
What did become obvious to me early on was that a detective makes for a terrific commentator on the world around him. ... In writing books about Edinburgh, I could examine the city (and the nation of which it is capital once more) from top to bottom through Rebus' eyes. ... As a subject, the city seems inexhaustible. This is, after all, a city of words. (449)