Three first novels from Newfoundland bob in the wake of Wayne Johnston's The Colony of Unrequited Dreams and concern themselves, as his novel did, with fictionalized historical figures.
Annamarie Beckel's All Gone Widdun (Breakwater, 385 pages, $19.95 paper, ISBN: 1-550811479) is the story of the quixotic determination of William Epps Cormack, a Newfoundland-born Scots merchant, to save the Beothuk of Newfoundland from extinction. It is also the story of Shawnawdithit, the last Beothuk, and of old Newfoundland and St. John's, where Cormack returns after an expedition: "I dragged myself past the long lines of merchants' warehouses and stores on Water Street, the taverns and bawdy houses, slogged through mud and the droppings of geese and ducks, pigs and cows that wandered the town's dirt roads."
Beckel alternates between first-person narration by Cormack and Shawnawdithit and, as we come to know the inner geographies of the two main characters, it is clearly Shawnawdithit who wins our sympathy. Beckel's use of Shawnawdithit's communication with, and obedience to, the spirit of her grandmother adds texture and creates a context within which to present the story of the last years of the Beothuk people. A similar attempt to use diaries and letters in the sections devoted to Cormack, an earnest stuffed shirt, is not as successful: he is not a likeable person, and the use of historically-correct language and attention to literary conventions of the period have been deemed a distraction by Beckel.
Beckel is at her best with her women characters: the rejected child, Anne Peyton, who is deeply loved by the family housemaid; Widow MacGregor, Cormack's housekeeper, who regales Shawnawdithit with Scottish songs and tales; and Katherine Attwood, Cormack's fiancée, who chafes under the social and intellectual restrictions of her nineteenth-century life. Shawnawdithit eventually becomes frustrated with Cormack's cataloguing of her stories about her people and begins to concoct increasingly improbable fictions of violence and silly customs: "Later, when I tell them to Grey Curls [Widow MacGregor], her eyes pop open and her mouth grows round as a full moon. Then she sees the small smile I cannot hide, the smile Willem never sees. She shakes her finger at me and laughs."
Between 1823 and 1913, many things changed in Newfoundland, but Water Street was still at the heart of St. John's. Tom Vincent, the central character of Gordon Rodgers' A Settlement of Memory (Killick Press, 256 pages, $15.95 paper, ISBN: 1-894294-05-X) walks down Water Street after the 1913 election looking for a suitable space for an office for the powerful Fishermen's Collective that he has organized. "He knew these people would not rent to him now, but he refused to give it up. The more he was turned away, the more determined he became to finish what he'd started. He was a union man looking for a place on a merchantman's street."
Rodgers has written a complex and compelling narrative using the history of the labour movement in Newfoundland as his historical anchor. William Coaker and the Fishermen's Protective Union are paralleled by Tom Vincent and his FC Union based in the outports of the coast and islands of Bonavista Bay. As with Beckel's All Gone Widdun, Rodgers' novel is backed by extensive research; but in his case, that research is the skeleton for a consistent and authentic narrative. Rodgers, who is also a poet and psychologist, is a native of Newfoundland, and writes about what he knows-not only through extensive reading, but through living and breathing the love, the politics, and the weather of Newfoundland. And if that doesn't drive you to drink, poetry or writing a superb novel, I don't know what will.
JoAnne Soper-Cook's Waking the Messiah (Breakwater, 166 pages, $16.95 paper, ISBN: 1-550811436) is also set in St. John's, but the scene shifts over to Waterford Bridge Road, where her main character, Moriah, is incarcerated in the Criminal Wing of an insane asylum. Moriah suffers from multiple personality disorder. One of those personalities is an Aramaic-speaking, historically reconstructed Jesus Christ.
The story of Moriah's disturbed childhood and how she comes to murder her father is difficult to follow. Soper-Cook has chosen a challenging subject for a first novel and has made things even harder for herself by having the multiple personalities tell their confusing stories in the first person. Time is supple and disorienting; the voices blend and merge with each other; the horror stories amalgamate into a heavy weight that threatens to sink the novel.
It stays afloat, but barely, and hauls into port without a limpid ending. There are bound to be those who object to her Christ character; I found the stereotypical foul-mouthed, aggressive, violent, leather-clad lesbian persona, Leslie, an unfortunate creation. This is literature, where anything is possible, but some things are more possible than others, and it is the writer's difficult task to make the implausible believable. Soper-Cook has worked hard to accomplish this, but Waking the Messiah doesn't quite make it into the harbour.
Michelle Tisseyre's Divided Passions (Key Porter, 351 pages, $19.95 paper, ISBN: 1-55263-025-0) was originally published as La Passion de Jeanne and was inspired by the lives of Tisseyre's maternal grandparents. Tisseyre writes with flair and confidence, tells a good story, and uses her knowledge of Quebec politics to good advantage. Her unusual feat of translating her own work is elegantly accomplished.
Jeanne Langlois, the novel's central character, is the only daughter of an easy-going Quebec politician and his oppressively religious young wife. In an attempt to please her mother, Jeanne enters a Carmelite convent in Manitoba. The bitter cold and austerity of convent life almost kill her. Once rescued from the convent by a worldly aunt, she cannot see any way out of her lonely life except marriage. The novel, set against the anti-conscription riots of World War I, the Roaring Twenties in Montreal, and the Great Depression, is the chronicle of Jeanne's slow, painful journey of self-discovery. Tisseyre depicts the intricacies of Quebec and Ottawa politics with insight and accuracy, and the great divide of the two solitudes that must, as Rilke said, "protect, and touch, and greet each other", is evident throughout her book.
The most ambitious of these historically-inclined novels is Faking (214 pages, $18.99 paper, ISBN: 0-88924-285-2) by James King, published by the newly revived engine of superior productivity, Simon & Pierre. Until now, King has been praised for his biographical works. His biography of Margaret Laurence is well-known, as are his books on Herbert Read and William Blake. In Faking, King draws on this expertise to create a fascinating study of the notorious Regency forger and serial killer, Thomas Wainewright.
The tale is told through the medium (literally) of a psychic Toronto housewife, the bored and bizarrely talented spouse of a University of Toronto professor. She records the voices of Wainewright and his relatives in a text that is footnoted with comments from academic over-the-shoulder voyeurs, and asides about the status of post-colonial literature, recent art forgeries, and the darling of feminist art-criticism, fifteenth-century painter Artemisia Gentileschi.
What might have ended up as a hopeless tangle of threads manages to become a strange embroidery of truth, fiction, forgery, pomposity, vainglory, and, in the character of Theo, a dark angel who flits in and out of the text, hope. Theo's last words of dialogue are spoken to Wainewright, who has been transported to Tasmania and is dying in the Colonial Hospital. They are, I think, a key to reading and appreciating King's work, and a lesson to us all: "`Appearances are deceiving.' He winked at me as a gesture of fellow-feeling and then offered the only remonstrance I ever heard cross his lips. `Sir, you give too much credence to the material world.'"