Thursday, June 7, 2012

The Colony of Unrequited Dreams--Review

 When I thought about my 52 countries in a year challenge, I thought about laving Canada and the United States out altogether. After all, the point of the entire thing was to read about countries that I didn't know much about, and I've read plenty of Canadian authors. But there's quite a few writers such as Robertson Davies whom I've never read. Indeed, I thought about picking Davies, as I've always enjoyed his acerbic commentary on the relationship between the UK, Canada, and The United States, and he seemed a fearsome old presence the only time I saw him when he came into my old bookstore. I decided, however, to pick a region of Canada where I'd never been, which left Toronto-based Davies out, and left Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and Newfoundland in. I picked The Colony of Unrequited Dreams as I didn't know much about Newfoundland save what I had read from "The Shipping News", and since I find MS Proulx to be a smug, pretentious colonizer of other people's cultures, I decided to read an actual Newfoundlander's account of his land, instead.

I didn't know until I checked the book out from the library that it was a novelization of the life of Joey Smallwood, the first premier of Newfoundland, and the politician who was instrumental in persuading Newfoundlanders to join the Canadian Confederation in 1949, and that it was written in first person, to boot. I even thought about returning the book unread, as there seemed something unsettling or even presumptuous about writing a book as a faux true-life account of a real man's life, especially since presumably many of Smallwood's nearest and dearest are still around to set the record straight. But then I remembered that two of my favorite books from last year, "Madame Tussaud" by Michelle Moran and "The Last Queen" by C.W. Gortner were written in this same style so I decided to go ahead.

Wayne Johnston plays a lot of games in this book. He gives Joey a thwarted love--not just a thwarted love but a love that is the one continuing thread in his life save his desire to become known for something--anything--who never existed. This would-be lover, Shelagh Fielding, a half-crippled alcoholic escapee from the ruling class, in turn writes a history (which doesn't exist, of course) rebuking a book (Prowse's History of Newfoundland) which does exist; indeed, Prowse's book (both as a physical object and otherwise) plays a key role in the book, and Prowse's grandson is an important minor character. Each chapter opens with an increasingly snarky excerpt from Fielding's book, which can be seen as a clever or overly obvious ploy to info-dump the reader on the history of that land,. This didn't work so well for me at the start of the novel, where Fielding's dutiful account of the exploits of John Cabot were rather yawn inducing; it wasn't until later where British machinations--and Fielding's indignation-- are in evidence that these little bits become more interesting.

There's a far sneakier game that the author plays, however, that goes beyond real vs imagined books. At first, Joey Smallwood seems like a fairly sympathetic character. True, he seems more than a bit driven, and  more than eager to repudiate his drunkard father, but this seems understandable. As time goes by, however, and as the reader goes on, lulled by Joey's account of events,  it comes as quite a jolt to realize that Smallwood only mentions his second child by name once, and the third child, not at all. And just what kind of financial shenanigans DID go on while he was the head of Newfoundland's government? It's all rather infuriatingly vague. Indeed, one realizes that Smallwood is such an egotistical jerk that one wonders if a touching--yet at a distance--romance with the prickly Fielding could even have been feasible. It's quite a trick to play on the reader.

I read this book so that I could get a real feel of what Newfoundland was like, and in this respect I was not disappointed. The sting of the salt-laden air at the gale as the gales blow through the stacks of preserved codfish hanging out to dry, the water moving under the thawing ice, twitching the surface like a breathing animal--gives the reader a vivid impression of the land.  My favorite part of the book was the trek that Joey, in an attempt to recruit workers to the union, travels to every tiny village along the railway line; his scrambles to jump free of the ice and the hospitality he meets along the way (to his dismay every housewife along the way offers up her precious canned goods instead of the ordinary eats of fresh caribou and salmon) reminded my very much of Cherry-Garrard's "hoosh" and ice-floe jumping at the very start of this challenge.

I enjoyed this book and would read the sequel, which is a purely fictional effort in which Fielding takes center stage. I still, however, am uneasy an unflattering fictionalized portrait of a man whose kin is still alive. I can't decide if my disquiet is enough to dock this book of a star; others might not be bothered, or, conversely, might find taking liberties with  the life of a man even more objectionable.


                                                           Four Stars

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