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book review

Wayne JohnstonMark Raynes Roberts

Quiz time: What's the motto of Newfoundland and Labrador? "Seek ye first the kingdom of God." It was conferred by Charles I, that unhappy king who lost his head to the executioner on a winter's day. Charles was too fond of having his own way, but Freudians might blame his parents for leaving him in Scotland as a child. In Wayne Johnston's fine new novel, First Snow, Last Light, vanished parents also cause havoc to a young man who spends a lifetime seeking them, and making himself king of St. John's. The book is a leisurely account of the warping of personality by loss, and a cracking mystery at the same time.

Ned Vatcher comes home from school one November afternoon in 1936 to find his mother and father gone without a trace. Investigations reveal nothing; the trail is cold in every way. Ned spends the next decades getting vastly rich, plastering the Vatcher name on businesses he buys all over Newfoundland as if putting up Missing Persons posters. When TV comes in, he buys a station and uses it to expound on his loss, even when drunk enough to believe he's speaking directly to his parents through the camera. He thinks, "Television. It's from two Greek words. … One means long ago, the other far away. The first words of a story. Long ago and far away, there lived – ." These are great moments, in which the medium is not only the message, but the barrier. Johnston poignantly shows that there's always a wall between the speaker and those he or she wants to reach.

Meanwhile in newsprint, Sheilagh Fielding writes "inscrutable, oracular columns" about the local powers that be. The book's second main narrator, she's an unmarried mother who had to give up her twins years ago (she turns up in two of Johnston's earlier novels). Stalking around St. John's with her cane and long grey hair, Fielding, as she's known, is an appealing character. Her puns are sometimes painful, but her quiet suffering is powerful. She's the flip side to Ned in her loss of her children, and she also keeps up with him in the alcoholism department.

There's a touch of a Pip-Miss Havisham relationship here; Fielding is half mother figure, half object of romance in Ned's eyes. Both have great expectations of the possibility of rebuilding fresh versions of their families – and who wouldn't, with such losses and spiky remaining relatives as theirs? The linking of the two characters is strong, though Johnston's use of alternating narration can make for Wimbledonish head-snapping, especially as the voices sometimes sound the same. This may be the point, though, as everyone in the book is looking for people like themselves.

But DIY families don't always work, either. The novel's strength is in its wrenching honesty; love here is persistent and uncertain, never knowing quite where to land, but always trying. Johnston has Newfoundland itself mirror this idea when it joins Confederation in 1949 after trying to go it alone, which led to "self-caused destruction." His historical touch is light, and he's especially good on early 20th-century social mores, particularly the enormous pressure to conform. Fielding, for instance, is profoundly unconventional, living nocturnally in a hotel popular with prostitutes, but she doesn't escape the fear of what people might think. When another woman expostulates, "You smoke and drink. What good are you to anyone? … You've wasted everything God gave you," Fielding can only sit in uncharacteristic silence, as if in penance for failing at ladyhood and thus, at life. In this rigid society full of secrets and cover-ups, it makes sense that many of Johnston's female characters are unstable in some way, and that much of the cast gets through the day in a boozy blur.

Yet First Snow, Last Light is decidedly unblurry, instead a clear examination of the heart and its deepest wants. It's also a compelling whodunit, with tension spun out across much of its length. To return to quizzing: What's the St. John's city motto? "Avancez," or "Advance." Ned's initial version might be something like "Make Newfoundland Great Again," and Fielding's perhaps "Burn It To the Ground." But both see in the end that forward is the only way through.

Alix Hawley is the author of All True Not a Lie in It.

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