Toronto: McArthur & Co, c2009.
I received this book from the publisher, having read DeGrace's previous two novels (Wind Tails and Treading Water) and being curious about what she would do in her latest. I was pleased to discover that I liked this novel the best of all of them so far.
DeGrace's first book was a set of linked short stories, some of which had been published previously. Her second ties the stories of disparate characters together as they pass through a café in the mountains. Both of these take place out West, in Alberta and British Columbia. This new novel has a few differences, the most obvious of which is that it is set in Nova Scotia. While DeGrace still uses the technique of following the fortunes of a varied cast of characters, this book is much more seamlessly interconnected and really works as a novel.
It takes as its premise the occasion of a UFO crashing into the bay next to Perry's Harbour, Nova Scotia, in October 1967. (this is based on the true story of Shag Harbour, sometimes called 'Canada's Roswell'). The book focuses on the community of Perry's Harbour, closest to the crash site. It is a small town, with families who have been there for generations. One of these is the Snow family: Wilf, Merle and Pocket, a gangly adolescent whose nickname is now an ironic one. Merle is dying of cancer, and the effect this has on father, son, brother-in-law Scratch, and unexpected house guest Wanda is the focus of the tale. Pocket is one of the few people who actually witnessed the strange lights disappear into the ocean. His movements shape the book, as he interacts with town bully Cuff Dodds, with local storekeeper Shirley Crosbey, with his own parents and uncle, and with the strangers who come to town in the wake of the UFO sighting. He is a complex, well drawn character who engages the reader's sympathy.
I felt like I knew this community by the end of the story, and was fascinated with them. I also enjoyed the fact that while the UFO sighting certainly gave structure to the book, the real arena of exploration within the storytelling was the lives and relationships of the inhabitants of Perry's Harbour, old timers and newcomers alike. The 'facts' of the UFO sighting are never resolved -- are we to believe one character's view that it really was aliens whom she made psychic contact with, or the view of some others that it was probably 'something Russian'? It is never clearly indicated, and the evidence is inconclusive -- the narrative could support either view, depending which you personally favour. I found it very interesting how she kept each possibility alive!
It was a deceptively light read, easy to get through but with many characters who have stayed in my mind for days now. There is plenty of room for after-book discussions as well! I enjoy DeGrace's writing style, and this book exhibits her writerly skill as well as her obvious affection for her characters. I'll close with a couple of quotes I enjoyed from different parts of the book -- there are small sections interspersed with the main text which are told in second person, and while they are different from the rest of the book I liked them. So here are bits of both kinds of writing.
Just after Pocket's mother dies, and he loses track of the possibly alien artifact he found on the beach:
He could see his life, and the lives of everyone he knew spanning out in intersecting lines, the curves of change, the sharp angles of the unexpected, the steady climbs and the sudden dips. How the shift of one affects the direction of another, alters its course, which alters another, and another. It all seemed impossibly complicated.
In the afternoon sky a daytime moon floated, pale, as if to say that even such things as day and night could not be trusted to stay in their places. You thought you understood something, could just reach out and hold it, and then it could slip from your grasp, just like that.
In one of the interspersed sections, called Low:
The sea claims what it will; flotsam of all description finds land on a full moon tide, embraces rock or sandy shore, holds on for a breathy respite as the water recedes, until claimed again when the waves return. Things lost sometime drift to the bottom and lie waiting, joined as time passes by new treasure, that left glove, or the penny tossed, Neptune's magpie collection...
How deep is deep? How far the bottom? If you had a sounding line, how many fathoms might you count before the lead weight finds bottom, and you know the truth of depth?