Sweetland

I finished an ARC (Advanced Reader Copy) of Sweetland by Michael Crummey last week. I don’t think it comes out until January, so don’t get too excited, but here is the review I put up on Goodreads:

Something about Crummey’s writing just sucks me in. Sweetland is a small island off the coast of Newfoundland. The Canadian government is offering a generous resettlement offer to the remaining residents, presumably because it is too expensive to provide even limited services to the population on the island. But the offer is only good if everyone on the island takes the package. Moses Sweetland, whose ancestors settled and named the island, is the lone holdout.Even Moses can’t really explain why he is being so obstinate.

Crummey flits on the edges of magical realism, but in this novel that edge is more like a fine yet fuzzy line between memory and madness. Sweetland’s life is slowly revealed in flashbacks and thru the amazing cast of characters who live on the island, but it is up to the reader to piece it all together and try to understand this man.

Book reviews are surprisingly hard to write. Bookstore employees are “required” to write reviews, but even with years of practice, it doesn’t come easy; for me, at least. And although I think the above is a decent review of the book, it doesn’t even mention two of my favorite bits of Sweetland. Not unusually, it was some little quirky detail about the book that is really staying with me.

Sweetland, like Crummey’s previous novel Galore, takes place on an island off the coast of Newfoundland. I love novels that create a great sense of place, that really give you an understanding of the ‘where’ of the story. Then there was this passage. All the way in on page 206, Moses decides to read a book:

Half an hour later he was ready to throw the bloody thing in the stove. Three afternoons in a row he sat in the day’s last light with the book, feeling like a man sentenced to dragging beachstones up the face of the Mackerel Cliffs. He looked at the cover each time he quit reading, flipped it to inspect the back. A quote form a Toronto paper about “authentic Newfoundland.” Whoever wrote the book didn’t know his arse from a dory, Sweetland figured, and had never caught or cleaned a fish in his life. “Jesus fuck,” he whispered.

I love this! Crummey found a delicious way to remind us that he made all this up. Much better than that stupid sentence in the front of most books, “All the characters and events in this novel are products of the author’s imagination, any resemblance to actual persons or events is coincidental.” So I shall refrain from saying that Crummey really makes you feel that you know what living in  Newfoundland must be like. But there’s another way to use setting that I first heard described by the acclaimed children’s author Susan Cooper. She said that she wanted the setting to be like another character in the book. I totally got what she was talking about and Crummey uses it to great advantage in this book. Sweetland the island is really as much a character in the book as Sweetland the man. There’s a moment at the very end of the book where Sweetland the island metaphorically disappears. Haunting, beautiful, perfect.

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