Author: E Annie Proulx
Details: (c) E Annie Proulx 1993; pub 1994 Fourth Estate Limited; ISBN 1-85702-242-4
Verdict: The Shipping News is beautifully written with amazing characterization.
Reasons for reading it: It occurred to me that I've been reading a lot of lethargic_man's recommendations recently, which is decidedly a good thing, but I thought I ought to read at least something of my own. And The Shipping News is a very me sort of book!
How it came into my hands: Found it on our successful charity shop trawl through Ely.
I really love this kind of book, which is all character and essentially no plot. As a further bonus, The Shipping News is set in a society I know nothing about, that of contemporary Newfoundland. And it really is an amazing example of the genre, and even transcends it. It has predictable elements such as a widower becoming established in a new community and finding romance with a beautiful, mysterious widow, but it is surprisingly unsentimental, and really conveys a powerful impression of real people's lives in a real setting, while also being tightly constructed as a literary piece that works on more than one level.
The language of tSN is stunningly lyrical. It's been a long time since I read anything that sounds so much like poetry, yet without distancing the reader or sounding mannered. There's a real sense of landscape, as well as a convincing portrait of the society it describes. And every single character comes across as a person, not an authorial prop.
There's quite a nasty undercurrent to tSN; it covers child abuse, prejudice and cruelty, poverty, violent death and the unravelling of traditional communities in the face of modernity. It is neither sentimental nor prurient about suffering, and as such succeeds in being moving without visibly manipulating the reader's emotions. And it doesn't use the cheap trick of making everything ok because the protagonist finds love; he finds love, but this doesn't really change the fact that the life is hard and loss is painful.
I like the fact that Quoyle's love for Pearl and his pain at her death are not treated lightly just becuase Pearl was a thoroughly unpleasant person. I also appreciate children who are real people, and the depiction of being a single parent as unglamourous hard work, without making a big fuss over how unpleasant it is or treating Quoyle and Wavey as heroes because they do it. This clear-eyed, unsentimental portrayal means that the book gets away with themes like dysfunctional kids making good, and even a Downs Syndrome boy as one of the characters (partly because he is a character, and not just an adorable disabled kid).
The knot stuff strikes me as pretentious without really contributing much to the story, but hey, that's a minor criticism.
The Shipping News is not the sort of book that would appeal to everybody; as I said, nothing much dramatic happens, and there aren't any radically new ideas. But it's seriously well written if you do like this kind of thing, a truly impressive character piece.