Sunday, June 28, 2015

The Shipping News, by E. Annie Proulx

When The Shipping News was first published in the early 1990s, many of friends were raving about it and I tried to read it several times . . . but I just couldn't get through it. I recently decided to try listening to it and, to my surprise, enjoyed it.

The Shipping News is set primarily in the small town of Killick-Claw, Newfoundland, where protagonist Quoyle (who brings the word schlub to mind) retreats with his two young daughters after his marriage to the tarty Petal ends in abandonment and death.  Along with Quoyle's aunt Agnes Ham, a yacht upholsterer mourning the death of her long-time companion (Quoyle is not aware that this companion was a woman), they hope to live in the family's ancestral home; unfortunately, it needs serious rehabbing and is unsuitable for habitation in the winter months. Nonetheless, Quoyle gets a job at the local paper, Aunt (as she is generally referred to in the book) sets up her business, and the girls, Bunny and Sunshine, generally settle in to their new life.

The characters that populate Killick-Claw, especially the other members of the newspaper's staff (the paper specializes in photos of car wrecks, sexual abuse stories, and the shipping news of the title; when Quoyle suggests that boat wrecks might be as interesting to readers as car wrecks, it's a major innovation), are eccentric in a way that seems to be particular to Newfoundland; they are reminiscent of the characters in many Southern writers' work, but with their own local peculiarities. Most of the characters have suffered significant losses in their lives--death is truly ever-present in a fishing village. Yet, as the narrative progresses, Quoyle and his girls seem to grow within the close-knit community that takes them in, and the ending leaves the reader feeling optimistic about the human condition.

I'm not sure what kept me from succeeding when I first tried to read it; perhaps the slow-paced and rather bleak beginning simply bogged me down at a time in my life that wasn't the happiest. Whatever the reason, I recommend the book now for its strong evocation of place, its characters, and its theme of enduring in the face of loss.

Favorite passages:
One of the tragedies of real life is that there is no background music.

For if Jack Buggit could escape from the pickle jar, if a bird with a broken neck could fly away, what else might be possible? Water may be older than light, diamonds crack in hot goat's blood, mountaintops give off cold fire, forests appear in mid-ocean, it may happen that a crab is caught with the shadow of a hand on its back, and that the wind be imprisoned in a bit of knotted string. And it may be that love sometimes occurs without pain or misery.

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