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The Shipping News by Annie Proulx

I’ve now finished my re-read of Annie Proulx’s novel The Shipping News, that I told you about a few days ago here.

When I finished the book the first time, so sure was I that I’d be re-reading, and hopefully re-loving, it that I bought myself a luxury numbered edition with specially commissioned foldout cover, (one of a number of editions celebrating publisher 4th Estate’s 25th anniversary).

I shut the covers this morning with a definite sense of relief. The memory of my first encounter had remained untarnished, so I loved it all over again.

The first time I read it back in the 1990s,  I remember devouring it, hungry for the story of the misfit Quoyle, who moves to the home of his ancestors after being a failure in New York state. I desperately wanted poor Quoyle to find himself and to find love in Newfoundland.

On the second time through, I took it at a more sedate pace, which enabled me to luxuriate in  the colourful characters, their hopes and fears – and everyone of them looking for love in one form or another.  As Quoyle’s best friend Partridge puts it, “Everything that counts is for love, Quoyle. It’s the engine of life.” 

Proulx’s descriptions of people are so evocative. Take Petal Bear, the object of Quoyle’s affections …

Then, at a meeting, Petal Bear. Thin, moist, hot. Winked at him. Quoyle had the big man’s yearning for small women. He stood next to her at the refreshment table. Grey eyes close together, curly hair, the colour of oak. The fluorescent light made her as pale as candle wax. Her eyelids gleamed with some dusky unguent. A metallic thread in her rose sweater. These faint sparks cast a shimmer on her like a spill of light. She smiled, the pearl-tinted lips wet with cider.

You just know she’s going to be bad news…

Petal Bear was crosshatched with longings, but not, after they were married, for Quoyle. Desire reversed to detestation like a rubber glove turned inside out.

The Shipping News - 1st UK paperbackSoon she runs off with a lover having sold their two daughters to a shady character, and is promptly killed in a car wreck.  His girls reclaimed, Quoyle is persuaded by his Aunt, Agnis Hamm to go with her to start again in Newfoundland, living in and doing up their family’s old home.

Quoyle, who had been an occasional journalist, uses his connections to get a job on the local rag The Gammy Bird. Jack Buggit, the owner, has strong opinions on what sells papers, and Quoyle, still raw from Petal’s demise, is given the task of reporting on car wrecks plus the shipping news.  Agnis meanwhile sets up a yacht upholstery shop.

It takes Quoyle a while to get used to the physical distances between people in Newfoundland. They may be spaced apart and there aren’t so many of them, but they do all know nearly everything about each other – news and gossip travel travel faster than motor cars.  Although their house is not ideal, they start to settle into the community, and they get used to the ever-changing seascape.

Blunt fogbows in the morning trip around the bay. Humps of color followed qualls. Billy Pretty babbled of lunar halos. Storms blew in and out. Sudden sleet changed to glowing violet rods, collapsed in rain. Two, three days of heat as though blown from a desert. Fibres of light crawling down the bay like luminous eels.

The Shipping News - current UK paperbackI spent my first years out of university living near and working in Great Yarmouth in Norfolk, where I caught the Gorleston ferry across the river estuary to work and did a lot of watching the sea.  Although, as a young woman from South London, I found it hard to fit in socially there I did like being by the sea a lot, and the working port side of the town was always exciting.  Proulx’s town of Killick-Claw sounds somewhat similar, but  more friendly, a place I’d stay in longer than twenty two months. If I’d chanced to make friends and meet some characters, maybe I’d have been tempted to reside there longer, like Nutbeem, an Englishman who drifted through and covers the home news beat.

‘I’m going to remember this place for many things,’ said Nutbeem. ‘But most of all for the inventive violence and this tearing-off-of-clothes-in-court business. Seems to be a Newfoundland speciality…’

In her acknowledgements, Proulx credits the influence of The Ashley Book of Knots, a 1944 encyclopedia of, well, knots.  It gave her hero his name, Quoyle; the first chapter is prefaced with a definition from that book of such a coil of rope:

A Flemish flake is a spiral coil of one layer only. It is made on deck, so that it may be walked on if necessary.

Oh poor Quoyle, to start off described thus, although things do improve for him of course. Further quotations and diagrams from the book are sprinkled throughout chapter headings. They are always pertinent to the pathway of that chapter, and add considerably to the novel’s charm.

My re-read of Proulx’s second novel has confirmed it for me in my pantheon of desert island books (see tab above). I love everything about this quirky book (10/10).

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I bought my copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Shipping News by Annie Proulx, 4th Estate paperback.
The Ashley Book of Knots by Clifford W Ashley (O/P, used copies available at a price!).

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