The book begins with a beached whale. Hungry villagers wait with knives, axes and saws ready on the gray and freezing shore, unwilling to hurry the majestic creature’s death. A slow leak of blood stains the water until the whale stops breathing. Then the ugly work of hacking up blubber, carting away the liver and heart, and rendering oil begins. Into this scene enters a man most astonishing, birthed into the ocean from a slit in the whale’s belly. His flesh — so white that neither lips nor nipples are detectable — reeks of sour and decayed fish. It takes nearly an hour (and a stomach-pumping that produces seven small fish) before anyone on the shore believes the man, Judah, is actually alive.
The coexistence of the earthy urge of survival with the supernatural sea colors this book and speaks to the mysteries of all half-submerged communities. Shorelines — with their potential to be both wet and dry, calm and terrifying — are the very essence of so much contemporary writing, Crummey’s included, that allows the fantastic to exist alongside the prosaic.
The book starts and ends with St. Mark’s Feast Day, as if only one year has transpired in its pages. In truth, generations come and go. The characters bleed into one another. It’s easy and intentional that we mistake Mary Tryphena for her grandmother, Devine’s Widow, and Levi Sellars for King-Me. Crummey provides a family tree as a map but then draws so many parallels between characters who are separated by 40 or 50 years that a reader is convinced things change to stay the same — or “Now the once,” as they say in “Galore.”
The divides and infighting here run deep: Catholic vs. Protestant, those without means vs. those with too many, midwife matriarchs vs. merchant patriarchs. Small towns specialize in gossip, and Paradise Deep is no exception. But one yearly tradition cuts through these winding vines of inbred arabesques, stony embarrassed silences and lies: From Christmas to Epiphany, bands of costumed mummers — familiar yet unrecognizable — roam through the town, knocking on doors, demanding drink while revealing secret loves and hates, meting out gruesome punishments, trying to shine a light where, most often, no light shines. The mummers, though they are simply townspeople in disguise, take on the stench of the supernatural, a reminder that the town sees and hears all.
“Galore” is an interesting title, suggesting, as it does, abundance. While the frigid ocean in this book, with Judah functioning as rabbit foot, does spring a wealth of fish, it nearly as often denies fishermen a living. Indeed, most of the abundances in “Galore” are of hardship, misery and misfortune. The choice of that title seems to have more to do with the fact that it contains the word “lore.” Over and again, this novel reminds us of the boggy land that exists between history and myth. Beginning back when mermaids and ghosts walked among the people of Paradise Deep, the book ends with a soldier’s return home to Newfoundland from the battlefields of World War I. Over time, magic is replaced by entities a bit more recognizable, such as labor unions, and one is left to guess how long it will take for the ocean, the windand the imagination to wear down the stories of doughboys hunkered in foxholes into something more like myth than reality.
Hunt has written two novels, “The Seas” and “The Invention of Everything Else.”