Michael Crummey is an absolutely beautiful writer. His prose is evocative and thoughtful and unique. He does description of place in fresh and fascinating ways. His books are usually quite character-driven while also maintaining a certain distance between reader and character. His protagonists are eery, otherworldly, a little at odds with the world but very much at home in their physical environment.
All of these elements are on display in his latest novel The Innocents. Evered and Ada are newly orphaned, the only residents in a remote Newfoundland Cove, sometime in the late 19th century. (Maybe? My best guess as to timeline. They are so removed from the rest of the world that it is hard to tell.) When their parents die in quick succession, they are left alone, cut off from a world that they are entirely unfamiliar with. Determined to stay in the only home they have ever known and promising to not leave the spirit of their deceased infant sister, the siblings work to survive as subsistence fishers. Their only contact with the rest of the world are the biannual visits from the ship that represents their father’s servitude and their ever-increasing debt. This is something neither Evered nor Ada truly understand but is steadily revealed to the reader as we begin to piece together their world.
As I began to read The Innocents I wondered how Crummey could sustain my interest through almost 300 pages. He leads the reader through the rhythms of daily life, the children barely hanging on and surviving as they attempt to learn survival. And, somehow, he makes it readable and fascinating. Their daily lives are monotonous but there are enough interruptions – storms, seals, shipwrecks – to mix things up and there is always the question of how long these two can really make it.
There is also the question of them growing up and their changing desires. I don’t think this is a spoiler because it feels so inevitable and tiresome but, yes, there is incest. Unfortunately, this probably is realistic but it’s not at all enjoyable to read about and it felt like such an obvious place to take the story. Other than this, Evered and Ada have an interesting relationship, so caught up in each other and completely reliant on one another even as they begin to have very different motivations. Adding an uncomfortable sexual element tarnishes the story and feels like a not very interesting direction to take their story.
My other complaint about Crummey’s work is more of a personal one. It is that his writing is so Newfoundland. He’s touted as a great Canadian writer and he certainly is (I still maintain that the Giller Prize will be his this year) but what he really is is a great Newfoundland writer. This West Coast Canadian reader sees nothing familiar in his books. The landscape, the language, the people – all of it is foreign. And, of course, I enjoy reading about places and people entirely different from myself. Perhaps I simply need to approach Crummey as a foreign writer. He’s writing about Canada and an important part of Canada but it’s still something entirely new and different to me.