Filed under: Book Reviews, Literary Fiction | Tags: book review, books, galore, literature, michael crummey, newfoundland, other press, paradise deep
Disclaimer: Other Press provided this book for review via NetGalley.
I am not one for “best of” lists or falling too easily in love with books, so when I say that I fell in love with Michael Crummey’s Galore and am already plotting my “Best of 2011” list (so far featuring, well, Galore), take me seriously. Reading Galore, which is broadly speaking the story of two rival families in a Newfoundland fishing village, reminded me in all the best ways of my first read through One Hundred Years of Solitude – the sense of having uncovered a world and a collection of stories that I wanted to never end.
See, this review was supposed to be out about a week ago, and given my normal reading pace it would have been. But as I neared Galore‘s halfway point I began reading slower, and slower, and slower, delaying the moment I’d have to give it up – though by the time I reached the last thirty pages I was reading as fast as I could, trying to keep in check my fear that Michael Crummey would take these characters and this story to some place I didn’t want it to go. (He didn’t. The end, as the rest of this novel, was perfect and correct and fitting.)
Jesus. I need to back up here. I can’t remember the last time I read a book the way I read Galore, and it’s hard to gather my thoughts on Crummey’s novel. In certain elements (expansive family trees, magical realism, a fondness for the word “implacable”) Galore recalls Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. I’m reluctant to make this comparison because I was initially reluctant to read the book based on this very sort of statement – but the book is completely and happily its own. Crummey’s style here fits Newfoundland and the lives it inflicts on its inhabitants in Paradise Deep – not spare exactly, but never saying or doing more than it has to, and always leaving details and elements of weirdness to the reader to sort through.
Time around Paradise Deep is sometimes vague, but events from the real world intrude often enough (as when World War I begins near novel’s end) that I never felt lost in the time. Crummey doesn’t move through his characters’ lives in a linear fashion and he doesn’t need to; he fits stories together in ways that suggest something greater than linear time, and the small discoveries this ordering of stories allows the reader adds to the sometimes biblical sometimes magical world of the book. Some of my favorite moments during the reading were when Crummey introduced characters in the present moment and let their lives stew for a hundred pages before showing us how they got there, like when I learned why Mr. Gallery just sat in his home while his wife slept with the village priest in other room.
The family trees at novel’s start are those of the Devine and Sellers families. Their rivalry (stemming from a rejected marriage proposal) is often the moving force behind the novel’s plotting, though Crummey populates Galore with a cast of characters any of which could drive a novel of his or her own. This is a story told over generations, and it’s fascinating and a little sad to see characters shift into memory, their deaths barely noted – to see at novel’s end how the stories of some of the first characters we meet, Devine’s Widow and Judah, are regarded as myth. It’s not just the time of the narrative that doesn’t move in a forward fashion, though; it’s the time of the characters, the village, as a whole, and it’s this that gives the book some redemptive air even when, at end, it circles right back to the beginning.
It would be a shame to let this review pass without giving in to my perpetual temptation to quote at length, especially given the quality of Crummey’s prose. I want to call it lush and spare at the same time – but that’s pretty stupid, and doesn’t tell you as much about his writing as a few simple quotes will do. Given the number of characters he’s dealing with in Galore, Crummey’s great strength as a writer is in his ability to capture a character in a sentence or two, or to drop in an idea central to the novel and its movements through time when we aren’t even looking for such ideas.
Exhibit A: As a child Mary Tryphena goes with her grandmother, Devine’s Widow, on sick calls:
Her grandmother said nothing to discourage the girl’s interest but she made a point of going out alone when a birth or death was imminent and the reality of those most elemental passages eluded Mary Tryphena. Entrance and exit. Eathna leaving them the way she arrived: suddenly and not a hint of warning. (10)
His writing also has this fantastic and understated humor. Mary Tryphena’s mother is pregnant “…and she was obsessed with the full bowl of her mother’s belly. She considered the entries and exits of her own body and there seemed no reasonable resolution to her mother’s predicament though she felt ready to stand witness, at nine years of age, to what promised to be an ugly, brutish struggle” (10).
Galore is crowded with characters who seem half-mythical – whose abilities or entrances and exits from life don’t quite fit with what we know to be possible, like Judah who is born from the belly of a beached and dying whale in the first pages of the book, or Esther who travels to Europe as a singer but finds herself crippled first by failures of her voice and later by an inability to remain conscious through her performances. There are the things, too, that populate the world – Kerrivan’s Tree, through which infants are passed as a sort of baptismal rite, and Jabez Trim’s Bible:
They’d once shown the doctor a scarred vellum copy of the Bible that Jabez Trim had cut from a cod’s stomach nearly a century past, a relic so singular and strange that Newman asked to see it whenever he visited, leafing through the pages with a kind of secular awe. He felt at times he’d been transported to a medieval world that was still half fairy tale. (154)
That’s the best way I can think of describing Galore and how I read it, actually. I can’t remember the last time I read a book with such a sense of awe, carried it and its characters around with me the way I have for the past few weeks,* was so reluctant to finish or so excited to explore the rest of an author’s work. I don’t often exercise my Right to Beg on this blog (only when I’m talking about Charles Portis, usually) so let me bust it out now: I’m telling you, I’m begging you, to read this book now. It is that good.
* Now you know what I’m thinking about when you catch me staring out the classroom window, oblivious to my students’ pleas to “please teacher play Simon Says please!”