Excursions Of A Bibliophile

What are u reading these days?

The Shipping News — By Annie Proulx — A book review

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on April 30, 2008

The redemption of a book, probably, lies in its widespread reading and acceptance by discerning public. I wonder what would the behaviour of books be if they had voices like human beings and somebody dinned into them with a messianic zeal that the purpose of their existence is to find their own redemeption?  I mean, lying on bookshelves, unable to move, helpless, anxious with a desire for their own nirvana they would probably scream at their owners to be read. I am happy that books dont have voices (real or imaginary), for if they really had, I think my house would have been worse than a fishmarket and I probably would have been one of the most shouted at person around. Even the limited collection that I have with me are so under read that a bibiliothical babel would have been an inevitable outcome.

Somewhere between Sept 2003 and June 2005, the London edition of Times ran a promotional scheme for nearly three months where along with the daily edition of the paper on Monday came a free and well written but probably not a very popular book. For want of saving cash while satisfying the need to swell the ranks of my library, I collected almost all of these. The collection included titles by writers like Penelope Fitzgerald (The Blue Flower), Andrea Barret (The Ship Fever), Doris Lessing (The Fifth Child), Jane Smiley (A Thousand Acres), Carol Shields (The Republic of Love), Ann Patchet (Bell Canto), Sebastien Junger (The Perfect Storm). Among this list was also included Annie Proulx’s “The Shipping News”. I had made a couple of lazy attempts to start on this book but never managed to proceed beyond the first few chapters. Then I happened to watch the movie based on the book and that prompted me to have a serious go at this book. Over the weekend, on a personal trip to be at a family gathering, I appear to have silenced the imaginary voice of this book. Proulx was no new writer to me for I had read a collection of her short stories called “The Heart Songs” long ago and was definitely impressed with her style, plots and astonishing command on language. Despite the familiarity and regard  it took time to sink my literary teeth into “The Shipping News“. Of the few modern writers that I had read, the only other writer I was equally, if not more impressed was Zadie Smith for her sheer command over language. (…very soon I propose to write my views on her book “White Teeth”)

At its core “The Shipping News” is a book about the journey of the hero Quoyle to his ancestral home at Quoyle point and also his ancestral roots. The journey back also provides Quyole with what appears to be true love and happiness in the presence of simple and honest people who have their minor blemishes and lovable idiosyncrasies. The ancestral home has a strange history and is held in place on a large rock with the help moorings on ocean front.

After multiple attempts at having a steady career, Quoyle ends up as a reporter in a local news paper Mockingburg Report in Brooklyn, New York where his education in reporting begins and it is at this time that Quoyle gets married to Petal Bear and very soon their marriage is on rocks for…. Petal Bear was crosshatched with longings, but not, after they were married, for Quoyle. Desire reversed to detestation like rubber glove turned inside out. In another time, another sex, she would have been a Genghis Khan. When she needed burning cities, the stumbling babble of captives, horses exhausted from tracing the reeling borders of her territories, she had only pretty triumphs of sexual encounter. Petal walks out on Quoyle and both their daughters —- Bunny and Sunshine and ends up dying in a car accident. It is during this time Quoyle also loses his parents.

Into this situation enters his aunt Agnes Hamm urging him to start life afresh  — “You can look at this way,” she said ” You have got a chance to start all over again. A new place, new people, new sights. A clean slate. See, you can be anything you want with a fresh start. In a way that’s what I am doing with myself“. The new place is Newfoundland — a predominantly fishing and sea faring community on the Atlantic coast of Canada. The aunt too has her dark and sad past.

Despite the reckless behaviour of Petal, Quoyle continues to deeply love her and at one point time confesses that “I never really knew her,” he said, “except that she was driven by terrible forces. She had to live her life her own way. She said that a million times”…. “Some people thought that she was bad, but I think she was starved for love. I think she could not get enough love. That’s why she was the way she was. Deep down she didn’t have a good opinion of herself. Those things she did — they reassured her for a little while. I wasn’t enough for her“. It is this thought that haunts Quoyle for a long while

With the help of friends Quoyle finds a job in Newfoundland as reporter covering shipping news in Gammy Bird a local paper in which…  the editorial played a stream of invective across the provincial political scene like a fire hose. Harangues, pitted with epithets. Gammy Bird was hard bite. Looked life right in its shifty, bloodshot eye. A tough little paper. Gave Quyole an uneasy feeling, the feeling of standing on a playground watching others play a game whose rules he did not know. The paper is owned by Jack Buggit and run by Terd Card an eccentric and sharp tongued managing editor. Quoyle’s other colleagues are Billy Pretty – a very gentle and knowledgeable man and Nutbeem – a britisher with passion for ships, music and sea food —  You know one of the tragedies of real life is that there is no background music……. You know the Chinese have forgotten more about sailing than the rest of the world ever knew. They invented the compass, they invented watertight compartments, they invented stern rudders and the most efficient sails in the world………… It is with the help of these understanding colleagues Quoyle wins the heart of Jack Buggit and earns a standing as reporter despite some hard time given by Tert card

In the meanwhile Agnes starts a ship upholstery business and makes a minor success out of it. Quyole gradually learns the history of the place and in the process also of his past –uneasiness came over him, that crawling dread of things unseen. The ghastly unknown tinctured by thoughts of pirate Quoyles. Ancestors whose filthy blood ran in his veins, who murdered the shipwrecked, drowned their unwanted brats, fought and howled, beards braided in spikes with burning candles jammed into their hair. Pointed sticks, hardened in fire. He also learns the horrible events of the molestation of his aunt by his own father and his respect and love for his aunt takes new intensity

Jack Buggit’s son Dennis Buggit becomes a close friend of Quoyle but he too has his history — Jack does not allow Dennis to go fishing for the fear of losing him as he lost his elder son previously. Dennis while being an excellent carpenter also longs to be a fisherman  “I wanted to fish too,” he said dreamily. “Proper . There’s something to it you can’t describe, something like opening a present every time you haul up the net. You never know what’s going to be in it, if it will make you rich or put you under the redline, sculpins or dogfish. So I wanted to fish. Because the Buggits are all water dogs, you know. All of us even the girls.” Dennis’s family provides Quoyle a great support with his daughters and almost end up providing a foster home

In the meanwhile Quoyle gradually falls in love with Wavey Prowse – the widow of Herold – a man with a gory past of womanising and starts to get a sense of what true love could possibly mean —  On the stairs an image came to him. Was love like a bag of assorted sweets passed around from which one might choose more than once? some might sting the tongue, some invoke night perfume. Some had centers  as bitter as gall. some blednded honey and poison and some were quickly swallowed. And among the common bull’s eye and peppermints a few rare ones; one or two with deadly needles at the heart,another that brought calm and gentle pleasure. Were his fingers closing on that one?

Despite all the precautions he lays for others Jack Buggit drowns in the stormy, cold atlantic waters and survives miraculously. It is this same storm that sweeps Quoyle’s ancestral home into the ocean without a trace. For Quoyle this augurs a fresh beginning and Proulx knits various incidents that happen through the book into a hopeful ending –  if a bird with a broken neck could fly away, what else might be possible? Water may be older than light, diamonds crack in hot goat’s blood. mountain tops give off cold fire, forests appear in mid ocean, it may happen that a crab is caught with the shadow of the hand on its back, that the wind be imprisoned in abit of knotted string. And it may be that love sometimes occurs without pain or misery.

If this is in a nutshell the plot of the novel why was I impressed with this book so much? I think there are five elements in the book that really collared me from the word go this time around

Firstly, it was the outstanding use of language. Proulx weaves magic with words. The control and abandon with which she employs language to evoke the sense of place, people, pettinesses, prejudices is one of the finest I have seen so far.

Second is the characterisation — one has to be an insensitive reader to be not able to remember the characters in this book for years to come after the first read.

Third is the overall sense of story telling — coherent and absorbing

Fourth has been the extent of research into various aspects especially about the absorbing history and fable of the setting. For example Bill Pretty at one stage narrates his past to Quoyle and here is what he says : You ask me, Canada was built on the slave labour of those poor Home children (of whom his father is one), worked to the bone, treated like dirt, half starved and crazed with lonesomeness. Or talking about his father….. And if he got a bit of money he’d order books for us. I’ll never forget one time, I was twelve years old and it was November , 1933. Couple of years before he died of TB. Hard, hard times. You can’t imagine. The fall mail boat brought a big wooden box for my father. nailed shut. Cruel heavy. He would not open it, saved it for Christmas. We could hardly sleep nights thinking of that box and what it might hold. We named everything in the world except what was there. On Christmas day we dragged the box over to the church and everybody craned their necks and gawked to see what was in it…Dad pried it open with screech of nails and there it was, just packed with books. There must have been a hundred books there, picture books for children, a big red book on volcanoes that gripped everybody’s mind the whole winter……. The last chapter in the book was about ancient volcanic actvity in Newfoundland. That was the first time anbody had ever seen the word Newfoundland in a book. It just about set us on fire — an intellectual revolution. That this place was in a book. See we thought we was all alone in the world. The only dud was a cookbook. There was not a single recipe in that book that could be made with what we had in our cupboards. ….Or…

Ar, that? Let’s see. Used to say there was four women in every man’s heart. The Maid in the Meadow, The Demon Lover, The Stouthearted Woman, The Tall and Quiet Woman. It was just a thing he said. I dont know what it means. I dont know where he got it

The fifth, may sound a little crazy, but is the extent of research that Proulx has done into the local cuisine — Any weak willed vegetarian would take to seafood post reading this book

After I read the book I could not but recall the words of Bill Pretty’s father ” Count your blessings that you are in a snug harbour” (and in my case) to have access to the literary output of a writer like Annie Proulx and the inclination to pursue it

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