by Michael Crummey (2009)
Doubleday Canada (2009)
Before the Giller Prize longlist was announced, KevinfromCanada rounded up some of the most likely picks for me to read. Crummey was shortlisted for the Giller Prize in 2001 for River Thieves, and Galore, his incorporation of modes familiar from Garcia Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude into the folklore of Newfoundland, seemed an obvious choice. Well, we were wrong. The Giller Prize jury did not include it on their list of twelve (in 2008, there were fifteen books on the longlist, making the exclusion more deliberate, unless there was a change in policy I’m unaware of).
I’ll be up front: I wouldn’t have included it in my longlist either, though it still surprised me that it wasn’t selected because I think it would appeal to many readers. Galore is an ambitious novel, filled with fascinating stories, and Crummey is a gifted writer. His sentences flow nicely, and his images are poetic without being overdone. While I didn’t love it, I did enjoy it.
As I said above, Galore is an homage to (or a rip-off of) One Hundred Years of Solitude. One of the epigraphs for the book is from Garcia Márquez: “The invincible power that has moved the world is unrequited, not happy, love.” And not that One Hundred Years of Solitude owns this feature, but Galore also contains a nice family tree portending its scope. There’s the strange old matriarch who seems to survive everything and intimidate everyone. There are some moments of magical realism; for example, a dead husband walks around, morosely watching his wife cuckold him with the priest. There is even a “kind of sleeping sickness.” With all of this, I’m sorry to say, Galore is no One Hundred Years of Solitude. And the references serve more to heighten reader expectations, which are not fulfilled. Where One Hundred Years of Solitude is a profound and moving book about the joy of life, Galore is really simply a lengthy tale about a Newfoundland community through the eyes of a few families. Where One Hundred Years of Solitude can be generally and specifically applied, Galore might work more for those who know Newfoundland.
Divided into two parts, Galore takes place throughout much of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, following five generations of characters (don’t worry, that family tree makes sure we’re never lost). Part one starts out cleverly, even if it does come off a bit contrived. A whale has come to shore, “a gift” to the community raising itself in the cold wilderness on the shore. The young Maria Tryphena Devine (the middle generation of the five we meet in the pages — yes, the book’s structure goes back and forth in time, but it’s smooth) waits impatiently for the whale to die so they can begin to harvest it. Finally the whale dies:
The Toucher triplets were poking idly at the massive gut with splitting knives and prongs, dirty seawater pouring from the gash they opened, a crest of blood, a school of undigested capelin and herring, and then the head appeared, the boys screaming and falling away at the sight. It was a human head, the hair bleached white. One pale arm flopped through the ragged incision and dangled into the water.
Mary Tryphena can’t know this at the time, but naked man born of a whale is Judah, who will always stink of fish, and who will become her undesired husband. Crummey lets us know this from the beginning, and as a result much of the book comes off as fated (something also bordering mimicry of One Hundred Years of Solitude). Sometimes that works, and sometimes it feels more like the author is making the story and its consequences more profound than it really is. I felt the latter here. However, this beginning is an effective introduction to the major points in the book: the generations of family, the Newfoundland coastal wilderness, the almost oral folklorish feel, the religious references that permeate (though mostly in fragments) the society’s Catholic or Episcopalian faiths. Judah is white, a freak. The village is suffering from a fishing drought, and they’re just about to get rid of him, the obvious bad omen. But then he saves them by taking a boat out to where there are fish galore. Judah’s status as a bad omen changes immediately, but he’s still not really accepted into society.
One of the problems with the book, for me, was that all of this seems a bit heavy-handed. And Crummey follows this up later in the story by explicitly adding yet more layers to Judah:
Watching Judah emerge from the whale’s guts, King-me felt the widow was berthing everything he despised in the country, laying it out before him like a taunt. Irish nor English, Jerseyman nor bushborn nor savage, not Roman or Episcopalian or apostate, Judah was the wilderness on two legs, mute and unknowable, a blankness that could drown a man. King-me was happy enough to think of that carted off to England and hung.
I’ll admit that I’m the type of reader who starts to find lots of bad things about a book once it starts to disappoint. I tried hard not to let that happen here, but I failed. At first, the book kept going back and forth for me. At one moment I would start to get interested in the story, but then the exposition would become too explicit, or — worse — the story would culminate in a punchline, effectively reducing whatever subtlety I was feeling into nothing. Once I started to believe that underneath the good writing there was nothing for me to engage with, I stopped trying. Which was sad, because the setting was compelling, the characters were interesting. I expected something deeper, something that would pound in my gut — but that’s Crummey’s own fault for making me think of One Hundred Years of Solitude too often while reading Galore.