Saints of Big Harbour
by Lynn Coady
Published by Doubleday Canada
413 pages, 2002
Forgive Not Forget
Reviewed by Margaret Gunning
Every once in a long while a writer comes along who makes it feel like a privilege to be a reviewer. Lynn Coady is that kind of literary "find," a young author of incredibly deep perception, sensibility and compassion. Though barely past 30, Coady already gives you the sense that you can surrender to her work, knowing you're in for an extraordinary ride.
Her literary landscape of Cape Breton is beginning to evolve into the Canadian version of the American south: a rich subculture yielding powerful novels from the likes of Ann Marie MacDonald (a recent Oprah pick) and Alistair MacLeod. But Coady got there first with her astonishing 1998 debut, a quirky little novel called Strange Heaven. Published by a small eastern Canadian press called Goose Lane, it turned out to be the little novel that could, garnering lavish praise from reviewers and a nomination for a Governor General's award.
Though Coady likes to recount the story that she almost didn't get the call about the GG nomination because her phone had been cut off, her success has happened quickly and, even more impressively, hasn't thrown her off balance. In her third book, Saints of Big Harbour, she is at the top of her game, revealing the many dangers, toils and snares of the Nova Scotia subculture with her unique mixture of sharp-eyed accuracy and heart. She so gets inside the skin of these people that it's impossible to hate even the worst of them.
And there are some pretty hard cases here. Though the nerve center of the novel is first-person narrator Guy Boucher, an awkward adolescent trying to grow up without the guidance of a father, Guy is just the nucleus of a whole constellation of characters, all of whom suffer from some kind of fundamental brokenness.
Guy lives with his mother Marianne, well-meaning but exhausted, who scrapes by on welfare checks and whatever she can make from baby-sitting. She has been saddled with watching over her blustering, deeply alcoholic brother Isadore to keep him out of prison, for which she is compensated by the use of his truck.
As Guy cynically observes, "You'd think he'd planned on being arrested all along. So he is paroled to my mother for driving the truck not just drunk but without a driver's license or insurance. My mother pays the insurance now that she's got a job in Big Harbour. I drive the truck all around hell and back, chauffeuring the both of them. My mother into town for her job, Isadore into town (once my mother's gone as if she won't know) to the tavern."
Alcohol is the crazy-glue holding Uncle Isadore's life together. It fuels his illusions of supremacy and keeps him blissfully unaware of the damage he wreaks wherever he goes. Guy describes him rolling out of bed after another bender: "He reeks. To cover up his bed head, he wears a cap that reads, Wine me, dine me, sixty-nine me!"
Guy's distinctive narrative voice, at once callow and knowing, is reminiscent of a sort of rural Acadian Holden Caulfield: "It's a stupid, embarrassing life," he confesses. Elsewhere he says, "Girls are insane and for the most part I can't stand the thought of them," which immediately tells us they're all he ever thinks about. He is particularly obsessed with a pretty, popular yet cruel young woman named Corinne Fortune. This attachment will form a major chunk of the plot, as a relationship which barely exists is whipped up by malicious gossip and Corinne's manipulation into a full-blown rape charge.
Coady could have stayed with Guy's first-person voice, brimming with gangly charm, right to the end. Salinger made it work memorably, after all. But she makes a decision early on to widen the focus, switching to third-person in order to get into the lives of all those other people in Guy's small, but somehow very complicated, world.
She never misses a beat here, especially in describing adolescent angst. A chapter called "The Corinne Fortune Story" is really all about Corinne's shy, chubby, terminally-marginalized best friend Pam Cormorant, and it opens, "One fat morning a fat fat got out of fat and looked out the fat. The fat was in the sky and all around the world was fat. Her fat mother called for her to come downstairs and have fat because she didn't want to be late for fat. Fat she went down the stairs, fat fat fat." This is both excruciatingly funny and deeply sad, and quickly reveals whole worlds about Pam.
The age-old question of who gets to be popular, and why, is a Coady obsession. It's a ruthless setup that we've all been caught up in, and it is to the author's huge credit that she reveals Corinne's own quaking insecurity as the story deepens. Even the popular kids are wounded and imperfect, with so much at stake that a stay in the psych ward must be disguised as a "visit to my aunt in Halifax."
The unpopular kids can at least relax into their own hopelessness, as in Coady's achingly funny description of a school talent show that only losers would enter: "Pallid nerdlings emerged from basements and attics all across town, oboes in hand." As Pam so succinctly puts it, "It's like we are members of a secret society. The club for those who don't exist."
There is so much more to this novel than the bare bones I have laid out here, in particular a disturbingly deep knowledge of alcoholism and its underlying despair. Isadore's favorite drinking buddy is Guy's teacher, Alison Mason, marginalized for being young, American and having a girl's name. Being a falling-down drunk is the least of it, as if this dry rot of the soul were somehow standard equipment. "Alison woke the way he always woke from blackouts: suffused with a pure, undistilled dread worse than any hangover. A certainty that the very worst had happened, and at some point within the next two-four hours it would spring itself on him in all its luxuriant horror, just before screaming How could you not remember! in his face."
How can Coady know this much about alcoholism, a deeply-entrenched generational pattern of demolition that baffles even the experts? Wherefore her scary knowledge of Corinne's abyss of depression? ("There is a cold spot in her imagination, a dead place that won't be warmed up no matter how crazily the rest of her mind bubbles and seethes. ... The cold spot remarks, If you were a well and someone dropped a penny into you, they could listen forever and never hear a sound. Lucky for you, nobody is listening very carefully.")
This is a writer with intimate knowledge of the most destructive patterns in human experience. It's all here, the booze, the chronic unemployment in which men become psychologically unglued, the writhing tentacles of Catholic guilt, the fleeting hope of escape through education in the big city. This all too often leads to the boomerang phenomenon of people fleeing back to the stagnant safety of home. I do not believe it is a coincidence that Coady now lives in Vancouver, which is geographically the farthest point she could travel away from home and not fall into the ocean.
Yet Cape Breton, like Margaret Laurence's Manawaka, has taken up residence in her skull, where it will likely live forever. This bone-deep knowledge yields up real literature, the kind of work that endures for the primal human truths it reveals. We should probably hate Uncle Isadore and feel sorry for Guy and despise Corinne for being such a shallow ninny. But somehow Coady won't let us get away with that. Judge not Isadore, who once had a shot at the big-time in Toronto and had to come home again with his tail between his legs. Like everyone else in Big Harbour, he is human and therefore (along with the rest of us) forgivable. | April 2002
Margaret Gunning has been reviewing books for many years but never gets tired of the grand adventure of reading. Her poetry has appeared in Prism International, Capilano Review and Room of One's Own. She is the author of the novel Better Than Life, published in 2003 by NeWest Press. She lives in Vancouver with one fat cat named Murphy and one nice husband named Bill.