Gaff Topsails

by Patrick Kavanagh,
ISBN: 0920953956

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First Novels - Stolen China, Stolen Dory
by Eva Tihanyi

Gaff Topsails by Patrick Kavanagh (Cormorant, 431 pages, $19.95 paper) is an introspective, dense, brooding work that follows a handful of characters in a Newfoundland village through one day, June 24th, 1948. It is the summer solstice and the feast-day of St. John the Baptist, the Bringer of Light, commemorated with bonfires up and down the coast. The fires are a tradition that started with Tomas Croft, a monk's son and Irish castaway, who five hundred years earlier had founded the settlement and whose legacy continues to infuse it.

The narrative alternates among the love-struck Michael Barron teetering on the line between adolescence and adulthood; Mary, the object of his affections; his little brother Kevin, who is convinced that monsters are chasing him; Johnny the Light, the mad lighthouse-keeper; and the newly arrived Father MacMurrough, still under the shadow of a failed love affair.

Kavanagh is an accomplished word-smith, and there are some exquisitely wrought descriptive passages. Unfortunately, though, the book plods, weighed down by its own seriousness, appealing more to the intellect than to the heart. The characters don't move the reader; they remain at a distance. Despite its literary dexterity, gravity of intent, and historical rootedness, the book fails to deliver what the author of Fall on Your Knees, Ann-Marie MacDonald, so aptly referred to in a recent interview as "reader satisfaction".

It is perhaps notable that Kavanagh assisted in the translation of Ulysses into Chinese. Gaff Topsails will most likely appeal to the same readers who have enjoyed Joyce's landmark-but painstakingly slow-book.


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