“I never intended to be a historical novelist,” says writer Michael Crummey. But with the publication of The Adversary, his sixth work of long-form fiction and the second in a row to be set in 18th-century Newfoundland, he has come to a reluctant conclusion. “It’s getting harder and harder to get upset when people say that’s what I am.”
From his debut novel, 2001′s River Thieves – a critique of colonialism that deals in part with the disappearance, at the hands of white settlers, of the area’s Indigenous Beothuk people – through 2019′s The Innocents, the St. John’s writer has plumbed his region’s past to create some of the most stark and eloquent fiction written in this country in the current century. His approach to character and setting is rigorous and granular, offering in aggregate a detailed portrait of a small parcel of rugged land and the people who inhabit it.
It’s something he’s been toiling at for a long time now. With the completion of The Innocents, about two young orphans forced to fend for themselves against the elements, illness, and various interlopers, Crummey was afflicted by an concern that had been growing with each successive novel – a concern that would become unavoidable when he sat down to plan out the new one. “Part of my motivation for writing The Adversary was out of my anxiety over repeating myself,” he says.
No novelist wants to write exactly the same book twice, but for Crummey, who confines his literary imagination to such a relatively small and self-enclosed geographical and cultural milieu, this worry became outsized after his last book was delivered. Having wrestled with possible solutions to the conundrum, he finally landed on one that seemed somewhat counterintuitive: he would embrace the problem. “It was my way of turning that anxiety on its head. I’m worried about repeating myself? Okay, how about I just repeat myself? Do it deliberately and find a way within the repetition to write a new story that goes in a completely different direction.”
The resulting novel, which ranks among Crummey’s finest, is set during precisely the same time period as The Innocents and even includes characters from the earlier book, including the Beadle and the delightfully named Duke of Limbs. In place of the two child siblings, however, Crummey gives us Abe Strapp and the Widow Caines, another brother and sister pair who, unlike their loving and mutually supportive counterparts, are mired in an ugly and vitriolic rivalry.
In many ways, The Adversary is the dark mirror version of The Innocents. The latter, for Crummey, represents a kind of Adam and Eve story; the former, by contrast, is a Cain and Abel story. “The Innocents starts with deaths and a funeral and ends with a birth,” he says. “This book starts with a wedding – not a very happy one – and ends with a murder.”
One inspiration for Crummey was William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience, an 18th century illustrated poetry collection that addresses what Blake called “the two contrary states of the human soul.” The poems, often sharing titles in common, are examined from the twin poles of the title, with themes and ideas refracted in the latter case to expose darker and more troublesome material.
Abe and the Widow operate within a mercantile context that closely resembles our current late capitalist moment. The mercantile system that they, and their real-life counterparts in the 18th century, lived under was known as the Truck System.
“People were reliant on the merchants for getting all their gear on credit and the condition was that they would sell their fish back to the merchant to pay off that debt,” Crummey explains. “But the merchant set the prices for the goods and the fish. Whether or not you had a decent life was often dependent upon whether the merchant you were beholden to was a decent person.”
If this all sounds uncomfortably close to the way we live now, the chimes are certainly not unintentional. Even when those overlaps are not so obviously apparent, they are constantly bubbling underneath the surface. The less technologically advanced world of 18th-century Newfoundland provides a mechanism that affords Crummey the opportunity to lay bare human hubris and futility in ways that are often obscured in our modern society. “One of the things I’ve often thought about the modern world is that it gives us a false sense of how much we have control over,” he says. “Our nakedness and how little we have control over in our lives is so at the surface in that [earlier] world.”
The Adversary’s remote setting, with its unforgiving weather and pervasive pandemics (another distressing reminder of our own recent history), is, typically for Crummey, rendered in a highly specific syntax and vernacular that brings the story and its characters to life in a way that is absolutely authentic. Which may have something to do with the fact that it’s the area Crummey knows best, having lived there all his life and having rendered it into fiction for more than two decades. For the author, the specificity of his work is one of the keys to making the stories come alive for a broad audience.
“The only way to write a story that will have any kind of universal appeal – your only hope for it – is to be as specific and as local as you possibly can, so that the world you’re creating feels authentic even to people who don’t know the details,” he says. “If you’re able to do that, then your story has a chance of travelling.”
Editor’s note: A previous version of this article stated incorrectly that Songs of Innocence and Experience was published in the 16th century. This version has been updated.