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book review

Michael Crummey’s Sweetland is all of a piece, its apparent simplicity of style, like that of its protagonist and his setting, concealing a primordial power.

In the opening flashback of Michael Crummey's Sweetland, a Newfoundlander in a boat comes upon a lifeboat full of dark-skinned refugees adrift in the fog, at first believing the voices of these "ghostly arrivals" are imaginary, or from the ocean itself. One is struck by the ethereality of the scene, so often all-too-real. Moses Sweetland recalls that, in leading the lost Sri Lankans to shore years earlier, he was "startled each time to see what was following in his wake." The observation, like so much in Sweetland, thrums with the past – in this case, the history depicted in Galore, Crummey's last, Commonwealth Prize-winning novel, of a Newfoundland community which, with its rag-tag migrants, its gory resilience, seemed a primeval human history.

Moses is the descendant of Swedish migrants whose original name, Swietlund, inspired that of the tiny island on which he has lived all his life, except for two trips in his twenties to work for a steel mill in Toronto. A fisherman until the 1992 moratorium, he became Sweetland's lightkeeper, until the automation of the light made him unnecessary. Now that the outport's young people have left, the government offers its aging residents a lucrative package to leave, with the coda that not one person stay behind. As the last holdouts accept the inevitable, Moses alone refuses, inviting anonymous threats and worse.

Crummey's prose in Sweetland is distinct from that of Galore, which in its taut poetry reflected the life-drive of a community battling impossible odds. The rhythm here is slow, circular, suitable to a man's contemplation of extinction. We gently rock between present-day events and Sweetland's memories: The delivery of a dead calf, for example, triggers thoughts of the death of a close friend's baby sister long ago. Dissimilar losses are linked through a subtly rendered inner significance; Moses, recalling his consoling words to a dead Sri Lankan refugee's brother, longs to whisper them to the sister he persuaded into an unhappy marriage.

Moses is now 70, unmarried, childless and, apart from his niece and her young son, has no living relations. He is uniquely fitted to serve as unofficial high priest to the island, recovering bodies, burying animals, and maintaining the never-used fishing stage, symbol of a dead way of life. When the nameless "government man" peddling the package asks him whether he would prefer to "stay here with the dead," Moses replies with typical gruff humour, "A body could do worse for company." His memories, imaginings and environment begin to fuse into one spiritual landscape as the community ebbs away. After his friend Queenie's death, Sweetland sees lights in her empty house; later, Sweetland spots a parade of spectres near the lighthouse. The threats Sweetland receives, including mutilated game, take on a "biblical air," and even the government man and his deal seem part of a divine snare.

In short, death is coming for Sweetland, man and isle: the point is made to excess, with corpses and ghosts abounding, and a neighbour in a hoodie likened to the Grim Reaper. It seems a narrative dead-end, so to speak, except that the augmenting unreality of Sweetland's perceptions, especially after he secrets himself on the abandoned island, does not signify a loss, but a repossession, of self. The local priest, Moses remembers, had deemed the Sri Lankan refugees' situation a metaphor for the human condition, spent "orphaned on an ocean that seems endless." This message is brilliantly taken up, as Moses struggles to survive alone, in a crescendo of recollections about the second trip he made to Toronto to earn money for an engagement ring: "Economic refugees… they felt like foreigners everywhere else in the city." We learn that this foray from self-reliance ended in catastrophe, robbing Moses of the life he'd wanted. Perhaps the secret of the novel's Buddhistic allure is to be found in Sweetland's increasing realization that an individual's life is "a made-up thing," real only to the extent that it involves a communing with death. Sweetland's protracted, wrenching defiance gives him back his lost potency.

Crummey's novel is all of a piece, its apparent simplicity of style, like that of its protagonist and his setting, concealing a primordial power. Much of the book's beauty lies in its finely wrought portrait of this last, exemplary islander, who – in the manner of Judah, the mute whale-born man in Galore – sustains those around him in ways so unobtrusive and gracious that detecting them can be like discovering buried treasure. We may never have met Sweetland, yet we feel we owe him something; he's towed us, too, to shore. Like a song of mourning, the work is not only sorrowful and commemorative – it attempts to reconcile us to his loss, to all loss, as part of the "sway of things beyond fighting."

Aparna Sanyal is a writer and editor living in Toronto.

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