Thursday, March 26, 2009

Heaving in Nova Scotia

Toronto: Anchor, c2002.
336 p.

Starting right at the first page, as Serrie Sullivan flees the church in her wedding gown and runs home to hide out in one of her father's vintage outhouses, you know this book is going to be unpredictable.

Serrie (Seraphina) leads us to London, where she falls in with a bad crowd at the youth hostel and gets to know more about the drug scene and night life than anything else about England. We follow her back to Nova Scotia and learn what led her to drop her university classes and head out for England in the first place. We see her best friends, Dearie and Elizabeth, with all their history together making for some quirky scenes. We meet the Sullivan family and extended clan; her rather ineffectual father who is best known for collecting obsolete outhouses, her mother and Aunt Galronia and Grammie, her older brother Percy. Conlin draws a strong portrait of a family always on the edge of need, both financial and emotional. Serrie is a raging alcoholic, spending much of the first part of the book heaving; she finally admits it when her friends find her blacked out at a local dive in the company of strippers and drug users. All this energetic rambling story then comes to a point where it pauses in the middle: Serrie enters a treatment centre.

This section of the book was tough for me, I had to push myself to keep reading to find out why the pace of the story suddenly stalled. The treatment centre and Serrie's daily routine are described in excruciating detail, and I couldn't help but think of the movie 28 Days. After Serrie leaves the centre and tries to make something of herself, the story gets back on track. She continues to tell her story in flashback and recollection, and for a while I was quite impressed that her problems were not the stereotypical ones I've come to expect from this sort of coming-of-age novel. But then It Happened. The one moment that really screwed her up, and all I could do was sigh. I know, It would have been awful. Terrible, really. But it was the one element of the book that was, sadly, predictable.

Nevertheless, this story gives us a feel for Nova Scotian life. The smell of the air, the quality of light, snow and a family Christmas, the salt tang on a wharf, local neighbourhoods and student living, it is all easily comprehended by the details Conlin includes, whether visual, tactile, or olfactory. There are wonderful relationships as well as understandably prickly family ones. The writing is fresh and powerful, full of energy, developing characters who are individuals, not just symbols. The structure of the book, while lagging a bit for me in the central section, is built so that we see the beginning in a different light when we've come to the end. What looks like disaster, Serrie fleeing her own wedding and running down the highway with red bra on display, comes to symbolize perhaps, instead, a final and successful attempt to claim her own power. It's an interesting read, and one that was very different from many of the more depressing Maritime stories I am familiar with. There is a youthfulness both in the energy of the writing and in the sense of hope that threads its way through Seraphina's struggles.


  1. I've read a couple of books set in Nova Scotia--a place I would Love to visit someday! I will have to add this one to my wishlist, though it sounds like it is at times a challenging (subject matter-wise) read.

  2. I have read this book and I really liked it! Probably because I live in Nova Scotia... And, well, actually like twenty minutes from the setting of the book, so I enjoyed the fact I knew what she was talking about!

  3. Danielle - it is challenging in a way, but also rewarding

    Kailana - I always love it when I recognize a setting I'm reading about; I thought Conlin did an excellent job of setting in this book.

  4. I love your blog. I hope to write a novel about the Halifax disaster sometime in the near future and welcome any books in the area. I visited Halifax a few years ago and loved it.


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