I can’t now remember what made me put Annie Proulx’s Pulitzer-winning novel The Shipping News on my TBR list, lo these many years ago. I do remember how many people were reading it when I was working at Barnes & Noble during grad school. I sold copies every day. Maybe that’s what lodged it in my mind as a must-read. It’s an odd book, about strange people in an isolated place, and it’s written in a way that could either grab you or repel you. I can see that it would get mixed reviews. But in the end, despite some reservations, I wound up mostly really liking it.
The Shipping News is first and foremost about the chronically homeless coming home. Quoyle, a great clumsy lump of a human being, incapable of doing anything right, grieving after the death of his two-timing wife, blunders into the Newfoundland town of Killick-Claw, and begins to write the newspaper stories people want to read. His feral children slowly stop having nightmares. The family makes friends, finds a house, learns to cook. Quoyle’s aunt, Agnis Hamm, finds her niche in maritime upholstery. Boats sink or they float, according to their fate. People find the jobs they desperately need; they find the love they need, too. A house that has been out of place for a hundred years pulls up stakes.
The background to this story of home is the story of Killick-Claw, and maybe the story of Newfoundland. The people of this town don’t accept poverty with weary resignation, they live into it with gusto, and they look with suspicion on anyone who wants to live any other way. Proulx doesn’t romanticize the hardship of this town — the unemployment, the overfishing, the long winter — but she makes it clear that this is home for these people, that they love it in an odd, fierce way, and that no matter where they go, it will always pull them back.
Proulx’s style matches the frozen landscape and the cobbled-together characters, in a way. She writes clipped, staccato sentences, dropping pronouns or verbs, making curious, jerry-rigged junctions of images, adding headlines. For me, it really worked, because it dug into the book itself. I saw wit in it, and tenderness, and a great heart for language. I could see, however, that this is a style you’d either love or or find annoying. Me, I found myself smiling on almost every page.
I did have a few reservations about the book. Proulx put so much into this novel that there were a few unsatisfying loose ends. The most blatant of these was the theme that ran through the book about sexual abuse. Proulx introduces the idea through a regular column in Quoyle’s newspaper, the Gammy Bird, and then, more personally, through a survivor in Quoyle’s own family, but then she drops it. Is it that nothing is to be done about such a pervasive problem? Are we to understand that this is a nasty Newfoundland tradition? If so, I didn’t like the way it was handled (or, rather, not handled.) There were a few other, smaller issues like this. Proulx was also a bit uneven in her treatment of her characters’ backstory. Some characters have shovelsful — Jack Buggit, the editor of the Gammy Bird; Billy Pretty, Agnis Hamm — and others we find out very little about, even though it would seem crucial to the story.
These, however, are reservations about a book I truly enjoyed. The writing was wonderful, full of energy and vigor. The characters were sometimes lovable and always real. I am very glad I finally read this peculiar, ice-crusted, Canada-soaked novel about coming home.