Sweetland by Michael Crummey
Sweetland – the best book you’ll read this year
The new novel by Michael Crummey, Sweetland, has been getting a lot of well deserved attention this fall. I began to read Sweetland knowing I would love the writing and would find a story both direct and honest – there would be insight and revelation. I knew nothing more than the fact that Sweetland is about a man who refuses to leave his outport village, and found myself enchanted by his story. Sweetland is a bit of a departure for Michael Crummey as it is set in our own time – this is not an historical novel except in the memories of the people who knew those who came before.
Moses Sweetland is a man who on the surface is as irascible as any Maritime farmer or fisherman – they might not say much but “by Jesus” when they do watch out – and just because they don’t talk about it, don’t think they don’t understand far more about life than we might expect. Moses, independent and perfectly capable of looking after himself, simply refuses to leave his home. Except for brief interludes when he left for work in Ontario Moses has lived on this island all of his life – as did his ancestors “time before time”, the island bears their name. Sweetland like most of the coastline of Newfoundland is spotted with the little graveyards, many looking out to sea where so many lost their lives. There are the graves of mothers and fathers, of children – people who were loved and mourned.
For me Sweetland was a novel about loss, the loss of loved ones, the loss of what might have been in relationships long over, the loss of identity. If you are no longer a parent or an uncle because of a death, who are you? If your home is no longer your own, where is home? If the view you look at from the chair in which you sit is no longer the one you have known all your life, where are you in this world? I think I will be forever affected by the profound sense of loss in this novel.
But – it is not all so unbearably sad – there is a wonderful sense of the absurd in Sweetland and the beauty of the landscape of Newfoundland and the wonderful eccentricity of the people who populate the novel. In his old age Moses is checking the internet – jokes about what he might find, as he “does my banking”. There is the barber who isn’t, the brothers who raise hell now and then, the village crone, Queenie, in her curlers reading trash – including one about “authentic Newfoundland” sent to her by her daughter who moved away, Moses later attempts to read it - but tosses it into the ocean in disgust. There is the memory of a smiling girl with her tiny teeth, and the little dog who will break your heart.
And there is the beauty and expanse of what is Newfoundland. “It promised to be a large day, clear skies and hardly a breath of wind” as Sweetland heads out in his boat with his great-nephew, Jesse. It is Jesse, the boy with “whorls of the double crown at the back” of his head, more than any other who touches the heart of Moses, and the reader. Jesse is the future, a future that promises to take him away from Sweetland – the man and the place.
The first half of the book is the present and the recent past, as the residents of Sweetland prepare to leave the island, and Sweetland prepares to stay. In the second half of the novel when all the others have left, it is Sweetland alone. The island becomes much as it would have been in his childhood – before the electricity came – long before the internet. It takes a great deal of effort to stay fed and warm through the winter. Grief and isolation take their toll on Moses Sweetland – he, and the reader, begin to, sometimes, wonder what is real and what is not.
My little experience of Newfoundland is that it is a place of great beauty, the kind of beauty that feeds the soul. There is a scene early in the novel as Sweetland is returning to shore in his boat, the birds, the sea, the cliffs, a bald eagle – spectacular. But Newfoundland is also a place of living breathing people, a place of change, of people who have the same desires we all do, for the health and happiness of those we love, for finding satisfying work to support ourselves and our family, for living a life worth living. I found Newfoundland a place where you can be yourself and are respected for who you are. I’m sure there are some nasty people in Newfoundland, but I haven’t met a single one.
Thinking about Michael Crummey, I realized that he and Joseph Boyden are the same age – we could say middle age - at 48 years old. We know they have both already written books that will be forever in our memories, exceptional books for one of any age. I look forward to what they will write as they age – as they become men who have more life experience on which to draw. We can see this already in Joseph Boyden’s The Orenda and Michael Crummey’s Sweetland. The work of authors who have complete control of their craft - and an understanding of what we know is true, but could not have expressed ourselves until we read their words. I usually wait 10 or 20 years to re-read a book, but Sweetland - there is so much beauty, wisdom and story in Sweetland I read it all over again right away – and found it even better the second time around.
Always the optimist, I believe Sweetland will win every award on offer this fall –but I was wrong last year with The Orenda – so we’ll see.
Both Joseph Boyden and Michael Crummey will be reading from their novels in Parry Sound this fall. Joseph Boyden on Sunday 28 September and Michael Crummey on Thursday 6 November.