The Shipping News by Annie Proulx

I struggled with The Shipping News for a while, and then found I just had to read it, despite disliking the writing style. So disjointed in parts it irritated me and yet I enjoyed the visual images it invoked. There are no spoilers in this post as the back cover gives as much detail of the plot of the book as I’ve written here.

Quoyle, the main character is no oil painting:

A great damp loaf of a body. At six he weighed eighty pounds. At sixteen he was buried under a casement of flesh. Head shaped like a Crenshaw, no neck, reddish hair ruched back. Features as bunched as kissed finger tips. Eyes the color of plastic. The monstrous chin, a freakish shelf jutting from the lower face.

He’s a loner, socially awkward and self-conscious, easily manipulated by others, his work as a journalist resulted in him seeing the everyday events in his life as newspaper headlines. His marriage to Petal brought him a month of happiness, two daughters and then six years of suffering. Suffering seems to be his lot in life; both parents commit suicide and then his wife is killed in a car accident. These events propel him into a life change as he, his aunt and daughters move to Newfoundland, the home of his forbears.

To some extent I think this is a book of set pieces, loosely linked together. Really not much happens, although there are tantalising hints that dramas lie around the corner just enough to keep me turning the pages to find out what happens next. The writing style, although annoying has left vivid pictures in my mind and I can still see the landscape of Newfoundland in its frozen, storm-ridden isolation, surrounded by icebergs “like white prisons” and the old, dilapidated Quoyle family house on Quoyle’s Point that had stood empty for forty-four years, a “gaunt building … lashed with cable to iron rings set in the rock”.  I also know a lot more now than I did before about knots, boats and boat building.

Quoyle’s job on the local Newfoundland weekly paper the Gammy Bird is to report on the shipping news, the boats coming in and out of the port and to cover the local car wrecks. The names of the characters are so distinctive that there’s no danger of forgetting who they are, from Quoyle (a flat coil of rope that you walk over) to his daughters, Bunny and Sunshine, the newspapermen, Jack Buggit, Billy Pretty, Tert Card and the eccentric Englishman B Beaufield Nutbeem, Quoyle’s aunt Agnis Hamm (reminiscent of Hamm in Samuel Beckett’s Endgame who won’t accept the end?), the harbormaster Diddy Shovel and the tall and quiet woman Wavey Prowse.

The main themes of the book that stood out for me are the relationship between the individual and the family, the importance of being part of a community, death, and love. 

The title, “the shipping news” brought to my mind memories of hearing the shipping forecast as a child. Even though we lived nowhere near the coast we always listened to it and I can still hear it like a poem:

Viking North Utsire, South Utsire, Forties Cromarty Forth, Tyne Dogger, Fisher German Bight,
 Humber Thames Dover Wight, Portland Plymouth Biscay, South Fitzroy, North Fitzroy Sole, Lundy Fastnet Irish Sea, Shannon, Rockall, Malin, Hebrides Bailey Fair Isle, Faeroes Southeast Iceland, with all the variables, moderates or good thrown in, in between.

Nothing like the shipping news in this book, of course. It’s still there running through my mind.

The front cover of my copy of the book shows the actors from the film of the book. I haven’t seen the film. I had to keep averting my eyes from the cover, but inevitably I couldn’t help but see the faces of Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey. I’ve written endlessly it seems before about my views on books versus movies, but I can’t resist adding this. Kevin Spacey could never be anything like my vision of Quoyle, unless he’s the best actor that has ever lived. So, I will not watch the film. Despite not liking how much of it is written this book has captivated me. I think if I can find a copy that doesn’t show scenes from the film (like the one shown to the left) I may buy it and read it again.

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 1994

11 thoughts on “The Shipping News by Annie Proulx

  1. I want to read this book, and I’ve heard it’s very good, but I’ve also heard it’s hard going. Somehow I’m not sure I would do well with it when I’m reading several books at once. I think I’d need to read this in one go.


  2. I’ve always felt uncertain about reading Proulx and for precisely this reason. One day I might try, but not just yet. Thanks for the great review, Margaret!


  3. You know what I’m going to say, BP. Please don’t see the film. I really loved the book, but the film is a travesty. Poor casting and a complete failure to recognise the importance of the location. Stick to the written word.


  4. I met Annie last month at an author reading/book signing. I thought she had some great moments in her story that she read aloud, but it wasn’t the type of thing I would normally read.


  5. I had some of the same thoughts as you when I read this. Her style was really hard to get into but, like you, the setting and the characters drew me in. My short review of the book is here and of the film here. Kevin Spacey is nothing like I imagined Quoyle to be from the book but I ended up enjoying the film.


  6. How interesting to get differing views.
    Danielle it would be best to read it on its own, not like I did with breaks in between whilst I read other books. It would have given me more chance to adjust to the style, maybe.
    Sorry Terri, but I won’t be watching the film – I’ve been disappointed too many times before.
    Litlove, I had no idea of Proulx’s style before. I’m sure you have plenty of other books you’d rather read, but then you might like this one.
    Ann, I thought you’d say that! There are plenty of other films to see without bothering with that one.
    Lenore, I bet that was interesting – parts of the story are very dramatic.
    Tanabata, I went over to your reviews, thanks for the links. I see that the film had the usual alterations and omissions, which confirms my decision not to watch it. That’s just the type of thing that irritates me about films.


  7. I happened upon the film accidentally (on TV) and was completley transfixed by it. When I came to read the book (and I confess I didn’t finish it), I could see that the adaptation had (necessarily) pared the story down to the scriptwriter’s view of its essence, and was consequently very different. I generally try to avoid seeing films of books until I’ve read the book first – they can only ever capture a small part (and a subjective interpretation) of the whole. But my abandoning the book part-read wasn’t owing to its having been ‘spoiled’ by the film (which I’ve seen again since and still found it very powerful), so much as my ability to get on with the writing style.


  8. I was ready to enjoy the book, and I did enjoy it to a degree, but the writing style was hard for me to take too. I so agree with you about the quality of the sentences! I’m not up for more Proulx, I’m afraid.


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