Thursday, April 28, 2016

Newfoundland Revisited

Following is a review of Sweetland by Michael Crummey, Liveright Publishing Company, NY, 2014.

In preparation for a trip to Newfoundland several years ago I read a wonderful novel entitled Galore by Michael Crummey.  That story encapsulated a sense of the island and the people who lived there with their peculiarities and foibles.  It was an extremely well told tale.  So I was pleased to find a newer book by the same author set again in Newfoundland.  Like Galore, Sweetland deserves plaudits. 

 The plot of the novel is fairly simple. A village on an outlying island is fading away and the government decides to relocate all the residents to the mainland (which, of course, is also an island, although much, much larger).  The hitch is that all of the 100 or so residents must accept the government’s offer.  Several, including the story’s protagonist, Moses Sweetland, stubbornly refuse, but they are ultimately pressured into acceptance by their neighbors.  However, following the death of his great nephew Jesse, Sweetland changes his mind, fakes his own death and stays behind to eke out a solitary existence. 

The beauty of the story is in the characters, dimples and warts included, mostly recalled through the memories of Moses Sweetland.  The islanders were a peculiar bunch, as is Sweetland himself.  The tapestry jerks forward and backward with various anecdotes and pieces of history fleshing out the tale in a sporadic fashion.  Ultimately, of course, Sweetland has to come to terms with himself, his own past, his relationships and his ghosts. Along the way the reader is pulled into a better understanding not just of the hard scrabble life on an out island, but of the complex web of human ties that bind and blind relationships.  

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Lost in northern Kenya

This is a review of a novel, The Names of Things by John Colman Wood,, 2012.

     This novel, set for the most part in northern Kenya among the Gabra people, is essentially a meditation on mourning.  The plot is fairly simple. The protagonist, an anthropologist, goes to Kenya to live with and study the Dasse (apparently the Gabra’s name for themselves).  HIs wife, an artist, goes along reluctantly.  While he studies (and reflects upon the culture he is immersed in), she paints and contracts AIDS, perhaps from tainted blood, perhaps from sex.  Back in the states she dies and he is lost. So he returns to Kenya to mourn, to find closure, and perhaps a way forward. 
     All of this occurs against the back drop of the dry desert landscape of northern Kenya where nomadic life is tough and where the modern world has made little entry.  Our anthropologist (who is never named) continues to chronicle the cultural life of the Dasse, especially their death customs, as he tries to make sense of his own loss.   He slowly transforms from observer to participant, but yet can never cross the cultural divide.  Pitted against inhospitable terrain and loneliness, his final quest is an individual one. 

     Needless to say this is kind of an odd novel.  There are lots of ruminations about life and death, and the nature of relationships, all of it offset by the stark reality of nomadic life and the understandings, misunderstandings and just plain confusion that an outsider brings to people he encounters.  Yet the presumably accurate descriptions of what that life is and how people cope make the tale compelling. 

     I am perhaps the rare reviewer who has actually traveled through the region so aptly depicted in the novel.  Although I had little contact with the inhabitants, the geography and physical descriptions are accurate.  Readers curious about Kenya, about nomadic life and non-western cultures will find this an interesting story.  I did.