THERE is something quickening in the guts of what is referred to in Canada as Atlantic literature, and if you put a name to it, it would be Wayne Johnston.
A World Elsewhere
Jonathan Cape, £17.99
His 11th novel, sure as it is light and playful, has set sail from the local harbour where many of his fellow Atlantic writers ply their trade. Within the covers of A World Elsewhere are evidence of all those aspects that make Atlantic literature special – the relentless ice and tide, love and cruelty, uncertain bloodlines, men lost at sea and the women who pine for them – or who are happy to be left on their own.
A rich and distinct culture peopled by Scottish folk storytellers, Acadian exiles and escaped slaves, the Maritime provinces, plus Newfoundland and Labrador, have been home to a number of notable authors who are prized in Canada but have not reached the international stage so far.
Leaving aside the world-beating pioneer Lucy Maud Montgomery and her irascible Anne Of Green Gables in Prince Edward Island, it was the grandfather of Atlantic lit, Alistair MacLeod, who set the deep and misty mood, nailing Nova Scotia’s Cape Breton Island to the mast with two slim but unforgettable volumes and a novel. Then there is David Adams Richards, the brooding William Faulkner of New Brunswick, who has been dubbed one of Canada’s most celebrated little-known authors. Ann-Marie MacDonald charted a tortured family saga, also based on Cape Breton Island, in her 1996 novel Fall On Your Knees. And of course, other authors with links to the region have chronicled its inherent drama – the harsh Newfoundland landscape a major feature in Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News.
Newfoundland features too in Johnston’s new book – as it did in his breakthrough best-seller 12 years ago, The Colony Of Unrequited Dreams. He got himself into a spot of bother with that one, a fictional account of the real-life Newfoundland politician Joey Smallwood, who led the province into confederation in 1949. Now, with the advent of Hilary Mantel’s creative histories, we have no qualms about riffing with historic fact. But the still-living friends and family of Smallwood took exception to the depiction of a fictional love affair.
But any furore on his side of the Atlantic hasn’t put Johnston off. The dark force at the centre of A World Elsewhere is Padgett “Van” Vanderluyden, which is such a thinly veiled portrait of George Vanderbilt II, the eccentric scion of the super-rich 19th-century American industrialist clan, that it is set out in the forewording author’s note. The name is like Vanderbilt, but also Van der Luyden, from Edith Wharton’s The Age Of Innocence. And Wharton makes an appearance too at Vanderland, the sprawling French palais-style mansion in the wilds of North Carolina built by Van, which is a literary copy of Vanderbilt’s Biltmore, and which would still be the US’s largest family home were it not given over as a museum.
Yet the heart of the story is not Van, but his witty yet hapless university friend Landish Druken. The son of a wealthy but cruel Newfoundland sealing captain, our hero is, perhaps like his name suggests, both outlandish and drunken.
Having rejected his birthright he aspires to write a book, for which he is disowned. Choosing desperate poverty, he adopts Deacon, a young orphan whose father perished while trying to save his crew on the ice during a blizzard, having been abandoned by Landish’s father.
A novel featuring a struggling author – Landish ritually burns every page he writes – can be a tired trope, but pleasingly clever humour shines out as Landish feeds his charge on affection and unusual mythologies. They travel from Newfoundland to Vanderland, at first out of desperation, only to find scores to settle and secrets to uncover.
With its slightly farcical final truth delivered in the gunpoint last scene of that becoming an escape caper, it is clear we are not to take this book too seriously. Some critics, perhaps accustomed to a more typical ponderousness of Atlantic literature, have taken exception. They shouldn’t.
Edinburgh International Book Festival, 25 August, 3.30pm
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