There are so many reasons why I love this book. The Shipping News was the first book that I’d ever read set in Newfoundland — the place where my mother was born and raised — a place she fled as soon as she could, to find security and prosperity elsewhere in Canada.
The landscape and the sea and the weather are characters in this book set in a climate that’s harsh, cold, and fickle. The weather changes from fine to menacing to life threatening in an instant. The sea, as Proulx so beautifully describes it, is like Newfoundland’s blood and beating heart in one:
The long horizon, the lunging, clotted sea like a swinging door opening, closing, opening.
The quirky characters, with names like “Tert Card” and “Wavey Prowse” and the dialogue rendered in thick, Newfoundland vernacular rings true to my ear. In the presence of relatives, I’ve heard plenty of lilty, euphemism-laden, hard-accented English, spoken at such a swift cadence I’d have to translate for friends baffled by speed and slang. Proulx gets it right: “Oh yis, I sees him afore. In ‘ere the odder day wit’ Billy. ”
When we meet R.G. Quoyle, he’s unmoored, adrift, and bereft at the death of his philandering wife, Petal. He’s nothing like his father Guy Quoyle, an incestuous molester. It is Quoyle’s Aunt, Agnis Hamm, (Guy’s sister) who pries Quoyle out of his doldrums, insisting they try for a fresh start and return to the house of the Quoyles in Newfoundland.
The house is dilapidated and desecrated, tied down not only by the wire that lashes it to the rock, but by the spectres of the past — the molestuous crimes that took place under its eaves and stories of the “wracker” Quoyles — ancestors who too, lived to inflict pain and misery on others by luring boats on to the rocky shore to murder the occupants and pillage their cargo. I love the fact that it is the weather — a violent storm — that bursts the wire cables and demolishes the house, releasing R.G. and Agnis from the burdens of the past — allowing them both that fresh start in their lives.
Above all, this is a book about hope: about overcoming, about uprooting ourselves from suffering and misery and making change. It’s about that feeling of potential, that sense of belonging and camaraderie we feel when crowded with family and friends into a lively kitchen. It’s about the simple comforts of warm homemade bread, bakeapple jam, and tea — prophylactics to the ever-present damp and cold, and to whatever it is that ails you.
November and December, 2014