First Snow, Last Light by Wayne Johnston
A new novel by Wayne Johnston is always a cause for celebration, and his most recent, First Snow, Last Light is as satisfying as all of those that came before.
The novel begins with a child returning home from school as usual, it is late afternoon, late November. His mother was always at the window, watching and waiting for the child, but today she is not and the house is in darkness.
The story is told in turn by the child, Ned, and by Sheilagh Fielding who we’ve met before in earlier novels. The past is revealed as time moves forward from the 1930s to the 1960s.
Edgar Vatcher, born and bred in Newfoundland, and his British born wife, Megan, are Ned’s parents. Their marriage is strained, but both adore and cherish their son. No one really believes they would willingly have chosen to abandon young Ned. There is an extensive search, but with no success in finding the Vatchers, or even any clue to the reason for their disappearance. Ned will forever be obsessed with the disappearance of his parents, and will never cease searching for them.
From the first page I found myself completely immersed in this tale of an abandoned child, his parents, and his extended family. There is also the local priest, Duggan, who cares for Ned for the rest of his life. Sheilagh Fielding is a seemingly hard-nosed journalist with a reputation for drink and disorder. Sheilagh, who was Edgar’s friend first, is another who will always care for Ned.
The Vatcher family includes Ned’s grandparents, Nan and Reg, and Ned’s Uncles, some living and one dead, who are ever present. The Vatchers live on the Heights – the “wrong side of the tracks” – or harbour from the city of St. John’s. Edgar was the son who left all that and by the time he was a young man he owned a grand house in a nice neighbourhood in St. John’s. Though, by the time of his disappearance Edgar was struggling with scandal and financial problems. There was some speculation that this was the reason for his disappearance – but that would Megan abandon her child seemed impossible to everyone.
This is a novel full of the sort of characters only Dickens – or a Newfoundlander – could create. Not only Ned, the abandoned child, but his grandfather who has not spoken for many years, choosing to remain mute, though his wife berates him at every turn. There is another child, orphaned at birth and adopted into the Vatcher family, a child with his own myriad of problems. There is such a richness of story and language as the tale is told.
Ned becomes more and more obsessed and eccentric in middle age. He may be a self made man who has acquired wealth and prestige but he is still a lost and abandoned child.
The dramatic conclusion cannot be guessed – as all is discovered and resolved and this chapter of the life of Ned Vatcher and Sheilagh Fielding comes to an end.
After reading First Snow, Last Light what I’d love to do most is retire to Newfoundland and read again all of Wayne Johnston’s earlier books.