The Shipping News

 The Shipping News by Annie Proulx

A great novel.

Kirkus Reviews, whose opinions I take probably too seriously, wasn't thrilled with it, but it won the 1994 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction so I feel justified in appreciating it as much as I did. I found the first part a little slow but once the story moved to Newfoundland, I was transported too. To the salt air and the crash and roar of the ocean, and to all the oddball, lovable, infuriating characters that people this story. They became my neighbours, my people, and I hated to leave them. I want to call to see how everybody's doing and catch up on all the gossip.

Back in the 90's I saw the movie and loved it, but somehow never thought about the book. I don't like to see the movie first because then the characters in the book all come with Hollywood-assigned faces. I guess with this one it's been long enough that they didn't stick, accept for Billy Pretty who I saw clearly, and happily, as Gordon Pinsent, who is one of my all-time favourites.

The main character, Quoyle, is a newspaper man barely getting by in New York. When his wife, a truly horrible woman who treats him like dirt, is killed in a car accident, he agrees to start over with his aunt and two daughters in Newfoundland, where his aunt grew up. 

They move into the old family homestead, an abandoned shell of a house without plumbing or electricity, sitting far out on a point of land above the ocean. Quoyle gets a job at the local paper writing reports on car wrecks and the shipping news, and they settle into the rugged lifestyle of coastal Newfoundland. There are wild storms, drownings, a party that goes way off the rails, a murder, and a lady named Wavey who offers Quoyle hope that love might not always be a lost cause.       

The author is gifted at creating atmosphere. This is how she describes the crowd at a school play:

"The auditorium was packed. A sweep of best clothes, old men in camphor-stinking black jackets that gnawed their underarms, women in silk and fine wools in the colors of camel, cinnabar, cayenne, bronze, persimmon, periwinkle, Aztec red. Imported Italian pumps. Hair crimped and curled, lacquered into stiff clouds. Lipstick. Red circles of rouge. The men with shaved jowls. Neckties like wrapping paper, children in sugar pink and cream. The puff of scented bodies, a murmur like bees over a red field."

I love this bit of conversation:

"Champagne! That's what I enjoy," said Tert Card. "With a ripe peach floating in it."

"Go on. That's something you read. There's never been a ripe peach in Newfoundland."

And the creative wording in these lines:

"The wires between his house and the utility pole keened discordancies that made his scalp crawl.


"...he was wondering if love came in other colors than the basic black of none and the red heat of obsession..."

This is a book worth reading. It's funny and sad, and so intensely real you can feel the heartbeat of Newfoundland and its people. The movie's worth watching, too. After the book.


Post a Comment