Sweetland by Michael Crummey

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Reviewed by Victoria

Moses Sweetland is an ornery, tough-skinned, self-sufficient, stubborn old man and he’s also a remarkably tenacious and vital force of life in Michael Crummey’s Robinson Crusoe-esque novel. Sweetland, also the name of the isolated island community in Newfoundland where he has always lived, is in its final stages of dying. All the remaining inhabitants have been offered a $100,000 resettlement package if they leave the island and relocate to the mainland. But there’s a catch – the money is dependent on everyone leaving, and old Moses remains a determined holdout. The threatening notes – and worse – he receives, the talkings-to he gets from family and friends, nothing will make him budge an inch.

Sweetland isn’t in the habit of examining his feelings too closely, so when pressed he isn’t entirely sure why he’s being so obstinate. But as the story builds slowly and subtly, weaving tales of the past in and out of the daily fight for survival in the beautiful but unforgiving landscape, the reader begins to understand. Sweetland is so much a part of his habitual chores and routines, surrounded by the whisperings of the past, that he wouldn’t make sense anywhere else. His long lost brother, Hollis, his mother, his late sister, Ruth, still have their places in his own personal community and their echoes in the people they have left behind. Sweetland is particularly attached to his ten-year-old grand-nephew, Jesse, whose strangeness has evaded a diagnosis but can be managed comfortably by the local folk. Jesse can’t get enough of the old stories, and will listen to them time and time again, each one anchoring another piece of his troubled soul to the land where he lives. Although Sweetland has more than enough reasons to want to stay put, it’s partly out of an unarticulated need to hold Jesse in place that he is compelled to remain. And when it looks as if Sweetland might finally be persuaded to leave, it is Jesse who pays the price.

Whilst the events of the novel evolve slowly and – for the most part – undramatically, the atmosphere conjured up by the narrative is remarkably powerful. The sense of time and place is potent, the characters vivid, the language tinged at all times with the local dialect whose cadences are gorgeously and wittily rendered in the dialogue.

Even Sweetland thought it was a lonely life for the youngster sometimes, stuck in that head of his. Surrounded by geriatrics and imaginary friends. And as if on cue, Jesse said, “Hollis went into St John’s to see a doctor one time.”
“Where’d you hear the like of that?”
“Hollis told me.”
Sweetland’s brother, the boy was talking about. Dead fifty years or more. “Is that a fact,” Sweetland said.
“He was into St John’s most of the winter one year.”
Sweetland got to his feet and busied himself picking up their bit of material, packing it away. “Finish up now,” he said. A feeling like bugs crawling on his skin he could only get clear of by moving. “We got better things to do than sit around here jawing.”

It took me a little while to get into the book, to grow accustomed to the language and the strangeness of the people – Queenie Coffin who is morbidly obese and hasn’t left her house in forty years, endlessly reading Harlequin romances, Duke who owns a barbershop but never cuts anyone’s hair, the Priddle brothers, the idiotic likely lads whose fun usually involves danger for somebody, Loveless, a man for whom nothing ever seems to go right (and who mostly appears prefixed as ‘fucken Loveless’), blind Pilgrim, Sweetland’s brother-in-law whose marriage to sister Ruth was probably never consummated. But this is a patient book, it will hold you closely to its spirit of place until you become accustomed. Once I’d allowed myself to let go and surrender to the world it creates, I was completely caught up in the story.

The second half, which sees Moses faking his own death and attempting to survive alone on the island, manages to be even more intense and claustrophobic than the first. With insufficient supplies and winter setting in, Sweetland has to face out the loneliness and creeping madness that accompany his island vigil. In stages of flashback, we gradually learn what happened to his damaged face and the reasons why he never married. And we fear for his survival, not least because we watch him fighting so hard for it. The ghosts who have been haunting the narrative up until now start to materialise on the island, lights are on in abandoned houses, shots ring out in the empty cove, music plays, crowds gather on the cliffs. Is Sweeland finally losing it? Has he finally had enough of the land he could not bear to leave? The conclusion of the novel is quite brilliantly done and ends on a note of piercing and perfect ambiguity.

This is a novel essentially about endgames – the slow drawn-out death of a community and the gradual realisation of a man facing his mortality. But it is written with teeming life and vitality, a celebration of the resilient human spirit battling all that natures throws in its path. Even the rag tag ends of a run-down settlement provide endless stories to be recounted, even the bleakest emptiest winter day is full of tasks and memories and possibilities. It reminded me forcibly at times of Albert Camus’ The Outsider, a novel that holds tightly to the one, difficult story it wants to tell, and refuses to be sidetracked, a novel with immense integrity to which the reader must submit, and in doing so, finds a new level of existence to witness. It won me over and by the end, I loved it and admired it deeply.

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Victoria is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.

Michael Crummey, Sweetland, (Corsair: London, 2015). 978-1472118875, 336pp., hardback.

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