Book Review: The Innocents by Michael Crummey

The Innocents – Michael Crummey (Doubleday Canada, 2019)

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.

18 thoughts on “Book Review: The Innocents by Michael Crummey”

  1. Knowing the inspiration behind the story might help you feel better about the incest. Maybe you already know it, but in case you don’t… Crummey came upon records in the archive once day about a brother and sister found living alone in a cove and the girl was pregnant. And it was left at that. He thought it was very likely that the father was the brother. Originally he didn’t want to write about it at all because of where the story obviously goes, but he kept thinking about it and about how, if they had been left orphaned at a young age, they would know so little about how the world worked, and what would that look like?
    I wondered if knowing all that before reading the book spoiled it for me a bit, but now I think maybe it was helpful?

    1. I didn’t know that! That does make a difference, knowing he was dealing with real life source material. It seemed really obvious to me from the beginning that the story was going to end up including incest so I was disappointed that he didn’t surprise me.

    2. I can see why it would be disappointing otherwise! When I heard him speak he said his goal was to write the story in such a way that we can understand how such a thing might happen. Do you think he succeeded?

    3. I do think he succeeded. Even to the point of feeling sorry for them and understanding the ambiguity of the whole situation. The kids are so isolated and ignorant that it’s easy to understand how something like that could happen without them even being aware of what they’re doing. Have you read this yet?

    4. Yes, I’ve read it now! I agree with you – what happened seemed… well… innocent. I wonder what ever happened to those real orphans?

    5. That would be an interesting thing to know! The detail of him keeping the clergyman away by gunpoint suggests maybe he knew their relationship was wrong. I did like how Crummy kept that ambiguity and the siblings never really understood what was happening.

    1. It is really good and Naomi’s comment above that Crummey was inspired by a true life story has made me soften my stance a little. I still wish that the sibling relationship had involved more surprise (and less incest) but it does make greater sense knowing it was based on a real life incident.

  2. I was looking at the blurb for this recently, but the incest angle put me off. Is there another one of his you’d recommend? I find it fascinating that you feel Newfoundland is so different and separate from your own Canada. I suppose that shouldn’t be so surprising given the vastness of the country – we have loads of cultural variations even in our tiny space – but it’s intriguing…

    1. Of the Crummy I’ve read, I like Galore best. River Thieves is also supposed to be very good, though I’ve never read it.

      Newfoundland is really its own little territory! They have a distinct culture and even language to a certain extent. I’ve yet to visit the Canadian east coast but would love to one day. I think one thing that makes the difference more jarring for me is that I’m from the coast too. I’ve lived most of my life on the west coast of Canada and it seems like we should have more in common with those living on the opposite coast. But both the geographical and the social setting end up feeling very foreign.

    2. Galore sounds as if it might have too much of the dreaded magical realism for me, but River Thieves sounds much more my type of thing! Thanks for the recs. πŸ˜€ Ha! We Glaswegians feel that way about Edinburgh and it’s only about 50 miles away… πŸ˜‰

    3. You’re probably right about Galore – the magic realism is probably what I enjoyed! I’ll be curious to hear what you think of him if you do get a chance to read some Crummy!

  3. I know what you mean about calling him a “Canadian” writer, because it implies that we only have one type, and yet, our country is so vastly different from one end to the other that this label does us all a disservice I think. I’ll probably be reading this one very shortly!

    1. His books are so rooted in Newfoundland – the geography, the culture, the language – that he really is a Newfoundland writer more than a Canadian writer. I can read a book set in Scarborough and it feels way more familiar. But he is very good at what he does write!

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