A lot of people have read The Shipping News not out of choice, but because it was on the HSC list. So when I tell people I want to read it, people either groan at the memories of discussing how The Shipping News relates to people ‘Retreating from the Global’, or mild interest about an old Pulitzer Prize winner. I just found it in a second hand bookstore – this is edition is so old, Proulx is still credited as E. Annie Proulx.
After Quoyle’s abusive wife dies, he moves back to his hometown in country Newfoundland with his two young daughters, and aunt. Wanting to start anew, his life as a rubbish journalist is not over, however, as he takes up a position at the local newspaper. The staff at the newspaper both help and hinder him in his quest to rebuild his life in small town Canada. Slowly, he learns to love again – love his children, love his life, and even love another woman.
Proulx’s writing style is something of a shock to the system. More than any author I’ve read in a long time, she has clearly and deliberately set out to create a unique writing style. The only other thing of Proulx’s I’ve read is Brokeback Mountain, and having just checked, the styles are completely different. The Shipping News has short, sharp sentences. Just like that one. It’s also very choppy – they don’t quite flow one after another. This is going to sound really pretentious, but it’s kind of like how I’d imagine a cubist would write – small strokes, each highlighting a different angle of the same scene. Does that even make any sense?
Once you get used to the style, this is quite a good novel. Proulx does an excellent job of evoking Killick-Claw, the town to which Quoyle. As someone’s who’s never been anywhere near Canada, I feel like I might be able to picture the town, and just how freaking cold it gets. Seriously, if I know nothing else from this novel, it’s that the weather in Newfoundland’s terrible. And cold. And rainy. It does not sound like a pleasant place to live, to be honest. And Proulx captures that really well – the struggle of all of these ordinary people to live in a place that, really, people shouldn’t be anywhere near. Just as Tim Winton captures the spirit of Australia’s coast, so too does Proulx recreate Canada’s coast with alarming clarity. I assume.
Abuse plays quite heavily into the story, though it’s done quite subtly. I love that Proulx reverses the expectations of having a battered wife deeply in love with her abusive husband, and that Quoyle is the one that is being abused – emotionally more than anything else. And his inability, or perhaps simply refusal, to see what he is putting himself – and his daughters – through actually makes him come off a little pathetic. Of course, it’s not just this part of his life where he comes off as less than ideal – he’s chubby, unhealthy, and is pretty terrible at his job. In fact, the only thing he seems to be really good at is being a father, which he does wonderfully. Too wonderfully, even, as he can’t bear to tell his daughters that their mother is dead, only sleeping for a long, long time.
Of course, once his wife dies, everything changes. A move to another country – to a rather chilly part of Canada, at that – and Quoyle slowly comes out of his shell. It turns out that he has a gift for writing about boats (though not being on actual boats) – and in a port town, his columns about the shipping news are well received. The politics of the newspaper is something of a microcosm of that whole idea of being accepted into a small community as an outsider – though, since Quoyle’s family once lived in Killick-Claw, it’s not quite the usual refrain.
More than anything else, this novel is an exercise in evocation. Evocation of a certain place, and certain people. The plot’s pretty arbitrary, though the overarching theme – that healing and redemption can be found in small town coastal Canada – is used to good effect to create some pretty broken characters who slowly become whole again. Probably not the greatest novel I’ve ever read, The Shipping News nevertheless is a really good read, and (though I actually know absolutely nothing about tuhe subject) an excellent starting point for Canadian fiction. Maybe.