Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2014-09-08
- Reviewer: Staff
Sweetland is both a place—a small island off Newfoundland—and a person—Moses Sweetland—and both have seen better times. The provincial government is offering resettlement money to Sweetland residents, but only if everyone agrees to leave. Moses Sweetland is 69 years old and has been disfigured by an industrial accident. When the story opens, he is the only person—aside from the man considered the island idiot—who opposes the government’s proposition. He’s under plenty of pressure to accept, but the island named for his ancestors, where he takes his great-nephew rabbit hunting and hands down family legends, is the only place Moses can imagine living. Crummey, whose last book, Galore, won the Commonwealth Prize, does both man and place justice: Moses is a memorably strong-willed character, whose manner of thinking and speaking are dying out. The novel also conveys the way that a sense of place is the product of relationships—among the living, with the dead, and, in Moses’s case, arising from an intimate connections to land and sea. At the end of the story, Moses remains alone on the island, his supplies dwindling, beset by injury, cold, and memories—the question isn’t what will happen, but how. Having nearly trapped himself in a narrative corner, Crummey writes himself out of it, concluding the book in a way that recalls Aristotle’s maxim from the Poetics: the best endings find a way to be both surprising and inevitable. (Jan.)
In Michael Crummey’s novel, Sweetland, a Newfoundlander named Queenie offers some literary criticism. Concerning books about her province, she says: “It was a torture to get through them. They were every one depressing. . . . Or nothing happened. Or there was no point to the story.” She adds that they are unrecognizable and probably written by outsiders.
Does Newfoundlander Crummey rise to Queenie’s challenge? Readers may decide for themselves. But what Sweetland lacks in sweetness and light, it makes up for in authenticity.
The title refers to an island and one of its eponymous residents, 70-year-old Moses Sweetland, who makes some of Cormac McCarthy’s surlier characters seem like Holly Golightly. The Canadian government is so convinced of the island’s hopelessness that it will generously pay its inhabitants to relocate. This provokes a battle between Sweetland and the prosperous mainland.
Once, fishing supported the communities along the North Atlantic coast. With the collapse of the cod stocks and fish populations through overfishing and climate change, this support is increasingly tenuous. Sweetland is thus in part a parable of how environmental collapse and social collapse are one. Crummey’s Newfoundland has become, at best, a remittance economy and, at worst, a stopover for Sri Lankan refugees headed to Toronto.
Sweetland is purposeful, and it certainly evokes the rawness and fragility of life in Newfoundland. It is not, however, an advertisement for the place, as Crummey devotes pages of rather self-consciously muscular prose to food preparation or to Sweetland grumbling like King Lear in various squalls— admitting with grave understatement that he “sounded slightly unhinged.”
Sweetland is both a testament to human resilience and a keen study of where that resilience shades into cussedness and derangement.