Book Review: Minister Without Portfolio by Michael Winter

Minister Without Portfolio – Michael Winter (Hamish Hamilton, 2013)

While books set in Newfoundland or written by Newfie authors definitely qualify as Canadian fiction, the more I read the more I feel like they belong in their own category. I’ve yet to visit Newfoundland but through books I’ve come to view it as a somewhat separate entity from the rest of the country. Perhaps it’s their late arrival into the Dominion of Canada (a fact highlighted in Minister Without Portfolio as the fact that Newfoundland is the only place to have willingly given up independence).

Henry Hayward is our protagonist, reeling from a break-up with his longtime girlfriend. The kind of man who doesn’t show much affection until it’s too late, trying to claim his departing lady with the words, “But I love you”. In an effort to escape “Nora’s town” he accepts a job with his best friend, working for a buddy on a contract with the Canadian military in Kabul. Another friend of theirs is serving with the army and through a series of circumstances, this friend is killed while Henry is with him.

Henry returns home, feeling responsible for Tender Morris’ death and finds himself drawn to his friend’s girlfriend, newly pregnant. Henry begins to step into the life Tender left behind with Martha, including the dilapidated family cabin that Tender dreamed of restoring.

There is here the drama of family relationship. Of friendship and conflict. Of restoring a falling down home and the complicated feelings that brings up for a small, tightly-knit community. All of these are interesting components and drive the reader forward. But the heart of the novel is Henry and who he is as a person. How he understands the world and how his understanding changes as his life circumstances change. He’s a deeply flawed character but also deeply sympathetic, no easy feat for a writer.

This is an honest, beautifully written exploration of one man, and an illumination of what it means to be a man, a human being.

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