Michael Crummey’s novel “Galore” is set in coastal Labrador, a captivating place, unfamiliar to most readers, that allows for thrilling and chilling descriptions of the cold. “The sap of backcountry spruce froze solid and exposed stands shattered like glass in the winter winds, the noise of the chandelier disasters carried for miles on the frost.”Crummey, a resident of Newfoundland, will delight readers who like to plumb the depths of northern bleakness: families surviving, or not, on potatoes and salt; mothers who have planted gardens of children; and a beautiful young woman who insists on having all her healthy teeth pulled out so that they won’t cause her trouble later. Like the two-faced ocean they pull their living from, Crummey’s characters in this multi-generational unwinding are icy and surprising.
The denizens of Paradise Deep and its neighboring town, the Gut, end up as twisted as the wind-tortured trees, making for a quirky quilt of personalities that might remind a reader of Annie Proulx’s “The Shipping News.” The families of two colorfully nicknamed characters — King-me Sellers, so-called because he owns the only checkerboard in town; and Devine’s Widow, a potent crone — mingle, fightand marry. It is not the harsh weather alone that warps these characters. The novel is populated by crazy, hateful couplings that more closely resemble animal husbandry than marriage. Romance exists here in many forms: unrequited, closeted, obsessive and even loving, but there are many forces more powerful than love in Crummey’s Labrador — primarily, the sea.
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.”
By Michael Crummey
Other. 338 pp. Paperback, $15.95