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The Custodian of Paradise

by Wayne Johnston
522 pages,
ISBN: 0676978150


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Overdoing the Gothic
by Steven W. Beattie

Wayne Johnston's Newfoundland is a vast, expansive place composed of rugged, jutting outcroppings of land and roiling seas. It is mammoth, larger than life, and fiercely unpredictable. The landscape of Johnston's native province provides the impetus for some of his finest, most supple writing, as this passage from his 1998 novel The Colony of Unrequited Dreams demonstrates:

"It was hard to believe Newfoundland was an island and not the edge of some continent, for it extended as far as the eye could see to east and west, the headlands showing no signs of attenuation; a massive assertion of land, sea's end, the outer limit of all the water in the world, a great, looming sky-obliterating chunk of rock."

Newfoundland is a constant presence in Johnston's work. His characters may travel elsewhere¨to New York or the Arctic¨but the influence of The Rock remains pervasive and inescapable.
Certain critics have suggested that Sheiglah Fielding, the prickly journalist first introduced in The Colony of Unrequited Dreams, is representative of Newfoundland, or its people: she is herself larger than life, irascible, and an alcoholic. Consigned to the role of a foil in Johnston's earlier book, Fielding returns to take centre stage in The Custodian of Paradise, which is not so much a sequel to The Colony of Unrequited Dreams, but more of a companion volume. The new book covers some of the same time period as the earlier work, but the focus has shifted, and familiar events have been rejigged to accommodate their new context.
The Custodian of Paradise is a long book, but it doesn't have the sweeping feel of its predecessor; it tells a more personal, familial story, albeit one fully dressed in the raiment of gothic melodrama. As the novel opens, Fielding has just inherited a sum of money following her mother's death; this money will finance an extended stay on Loreburn, a deserted island off the Newfoundland coast, where she retreats to heal from the psychic wounds she has suffered after the death of a loved one in the war. She takes with her two enormous trunks liberally stocked with Scotch, and her journals and assorted letters.
These written records constitute the bulk of the narrative. This is a tricky narrative strategy to deploy effectively, but Johnston further complicates it in the novel's early stages by interspersing Fielding's journal entries of 1916, when she was fifteen years old, with reminiscences of her girlhood six years earlier. And these are then considered from the perspective of a woman in her forties sitting alone on Loreburn island.
The distance between the girl of nine in Fielding's memory and the middle-aged woman who is writing the story down might help to explain some of the lapses in verisimilitude to which the narration falls prey. For example, Fielding records that at age nine, while perusing her father's medical textbooks, she found it necessary to look up the word "receptive". But then she goes on to describe an encounter with her school's headmistress, during which the headmistress confronts the child with the fact of her mother's desertion of the family. The nine-year-old responds with uncommon wit:

"I have nothing against easily shocked unmarried women. I may be one myself some day."
"I suppose you must hate your mother, Sheilagh."
"A woman not easily shocked but easily unmarried."

It is doubtful that any nine-year-old, no matter how precocious, could come up with such a sophisticated riposte. The journal entries from 1916 generally have more of a girlish quality to them, although there are moments where a seemingly more mature voice intrudes¨for example, when the fifteen-year-old Fielding refers to her unborn child as "the cynosure of so much secrecy and vigilance."
Lapses in diction aside, the prevalence of letters and journal entries, coupled with Fielding's jottings at Loreburn, put the reader at one, sometimes two removes from the events being described. Even in the putative 'narrative present', most of the action in the novel involves one woman sitting alone in a room reading and writing. It is difficult to muster any sense of drama or anticipation out of such a scenario, and the novel succeeds only intermittently.
Moreover, Johnston's chosen narrative approach necessitates the inclusion of letters from a third party, who identifies himself only as Fielding's "Provider", and who fills in details of the plot that Fielding could not possibly have been privy to. Fielding's "Provider" has been stalking her for most of her life; in one of the novel's more ludicrous scenes he materializes out of a snowstorm, wearing a gas mask. Letters written by the "Provider" appear sporadically, but they never feel like anything more than a convenient device for conveying necessary information to the reader.
The novel's labyrinthine plot sets Fielding on a collision course with her "Provider"; the promise of this confrontation provides the second half of the book with what meagre momentum it has. But when the anticipated meeting finally occurs, the secrets that are revealed and the mysteries that are solved push a reader, even a reader primed for a gothic story, well past credulity's breaking point. In addition, Johnston makes an abrupt and inexplicable shift out of the first-person narration that has dominated the novel into a third-person omniscient narration. That this scene, one of the few scenes of unmediated dramatic action in the novel, and one that would easily justify being presented from Fielding's point of view, should suddenly alter the narrative perspective is bizarre.
If The Custodian of Paradise is a disappointment, it is only because Johnston is a writer of uncommon skill and grace. Notwithstanding the novel's narrative infelicities, it contains isolated passages that are as lyrical and evocative as anything Johnston has written in the past:

"But I cannot help imagining that behind all those doors and windows lie rooms so abruptly abandoned they look just as they did on any average day, tables still set for meals, wood piled high beside pot-bellied stoves, beds unmade, closets and dressers crammed with clothes, books left open and face down on the floor, little household projects like knitting cast aside¨a Pompei whose disaster cry was a false alarm, or warned of something less spectacular than a volcanic eruption, something that must have been, in its own way, an intervention just as final and profound, a modest apocalypse still unheard of in the outside world."

At its best, Johnston's writing is like Newfoundland itself: unspoiled, majestic, and vibrant. The Custodian of Paradise is a flawed book from a fine writer who will undoubtedly produce better work in the future. ˛
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