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

The Sunday Salon – Book Notes

Another Sunday Salon post. I finished reading three books this week. That’s not as much reading as it sounds as I’d been reading two of them for what seems like ages. I’ve already written about Nigel Slater’s autobiographical Toast,  which I gobbled down. 

The other two books are Inspiration by Wayne W Dyer and The Shipping News by Annie Proulx. Inspiration is subtitled “Your Ultimate Calling“. I borrowed it from the library, partly because I’ve read other books by him and partly because of the front cover with a photograph of a butterfly. I’m glad I didn’t buy this book as I won’t want to read it again. I took a long time over it because I read short sections most mornings. It’s due back at the library next week so I read the last few chapters in one sitting, which I found quite repetitive. In fact the whole book is repetitive – inspiration is living “in-spirit”. Each chapter ends with “Some Suggestions for Putting the Ideas in This Chapter to Work for You”. I think I could probably have just read these and got a good idea of what the book is about. I don’t go along with everything Wayne Dyer advocates but there are some good things in the book, a lot of which I already know but don’t always do, such as unclutter your life, slow down, relax, meditate, turn off the television, be less judgmental of yourself as well as of others, and so on.

I’ve been reading The Shipping News on and off for weeks. Twice I thought I wouldn’t bother reading any more but in the end I did finish it. My problem with it is its style – I don’t like it. Too many fragments. Sentences without nouns, pronouns. And all those lists. But counter-balancing this are the scenes of Newfoundland; the people, the landscape, the ice, wind, snow, storms; at times I felt seasick. I’m going to write more about this in a post on its own.

I’ve started to read The Book Thief by Markus Zusak and although I’ve only read a few chapters I think it’s going to be compulsive reading.

I’ve also started Admit One: a Journey into Film by Emmett James. This promises to be good with the story of his life interwined with films and its correlation to our pasts. With my current obssession with films versus books I’m looking forward to reading more. In the introduction James writes:

I am struck by one, pertinent truth (thanks to the 20/20 hindsight of adulthood). that fact is is this: that a film itself, although unalterable once the physical reel is printed and unleashed, changes continually in the reel of our memory.

I returned one book to the library this week and came home with four more. These are:

  1. Making It Up by Penelope Lively. Taking moments from her life  and asking ‘what if?’ she constructs fictions about possibilities and alternative destinies.
  2. A Splash of Red by Antonia Fraser. A Jemima Shore novel in which Jemima flat-sits for a friend , close to the British Library and receives threatening anonymous phone calls …
  3. Flaubert’s Parrot by Julian Barnes. A multiple mystery of obssession and betrayal concerning two stuffed parrots both claimed as the one Flaubert borrowed from the Museum of Rouen to sit on his desk as inspiration. I read about this in someone’s blog – I’m sorry but I can’t remember who. It sounded so funny that when I saw it on the libray display shelf I just had to borrow it.
  4. Messenger of Truth by Jacqueline Winspear. This is the fourth Maisie Dobbs Mystery. I read the first one of her books, Maisie Dobbs last November and have wanted to read more. Another lucky find that almost jumped off the shelf into my hand.

Now all I need is time to get reading.

Sunday Salon – Today’s Books

Today’s Sunday Salon post is a bit brief. We’ve been away for the last two days, travelling to Scotland and back and I’m rather tired, and have only read for a short time today. I began reading The Shipping News a while back and picked that up again this morning. It’s one of the books that I’d put to one side after watching Atonement and deciding to re-read that book.

I need to refresh my memory of what I’d already read – I’m up to chapter 8. Quoyle, a journalist has taken his two daughters and aunt back to Newfoundland, where he was born, to pick up his life again after the death of his wife in a road accident. He has a job on the local newspaper reporting on car accidents and the shipping news and so far into my reading not much more has happened.

Quoyle who is not the most dynamic character, is a simple soul, easily manipulated by others. A “quoyle” is a coil of rope. The quotation heading chapter 1 adds “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”, which seems to describe Quoyle. The book won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1994 and it’s described on the back cover as “an irresistible comedy of hunan life and possibility.” I’m looking forward to reading more.

But I just had to carry on reading Toast, which I started on Friday, so The Shipping News has lost out again. I’m now over half-way through Toast, which is so good. Nigel Slater has a way of describing food, so that you can almost taste it and there is the additional pleasure of remembering all sorts of food and treats from my childhood – sweets like Refreshers, Love Hearts and Sherbet Fountains, crisps with salt in the separate little blue twist of waxed paper, drinks such as cream soda, pudding like rice pudding, and Heinz Sponge Puddings that you steamed in the tin – I could go on and on. Interspersed with his descriptions of food are his memories of his childhood, becoming increasingly poignant as I read further on. I’m sure I’ll be sad when I’ve finished this book.