Despite boasting a Pulitzer Prize and a big-name Hollywood adaptation, Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News is an unhurried and unconventional novel, a simple story which nonetheless requires a fair amount of thought to get the best out of. It follows the life of a man referred to only as Quoyle, one of life’s permanent losers, burdened with crippling self doubt and never quite able to succeed at anything he does. When his painful marriage comes to a harrowing end, he takes his daughters and joins his aunt in returning to the home of his ancestors in the wilderness of Newfoundland, where he tries to start his life over again.
This is very much Quoyle’s story – right from the outset we see the supporting cast given little more than character sketches, while the focus remains on building up a vivid picture of Quoyle as he muddles through his awkward, unhappy life. Such is the bleak image of a man who can do nothing right, it takes a good quarter of the book for him to actually become likeable. Before that it makes for awkward reading, a brutally honest description of a man who seems genetically predisposed for failure. Once settled in Newfoundland things start to look up for him though, and the book begins to blossom as it explores the strange, isolated way of life for those living in such a remote location.
It’s not only Quoyle’s awkwardness that makes this a challenging read at times; Proulx writes with a strange rhythm, mixing in short, to-the-point sentences along with the occasional long, rambling section of dialect-heavy dialogue and strange jumps in viewpoint. It’s odd at first, and hard to find the flow, but becomes easier as the book continues, rewarding a little patience with some wonderful, evocative, descriptive writing. Newfoundland itself comes to life beautifully, from the challenges of living with some of the most powerful weather imaginable, to the locals’ fiercely held belief in maintaining the traditions of a life reliant on the sea.
For those looking for an easy read, this is not that sort of book. It’s a slow burning read, with little in the way of action or excitement, but one that rewards a patient reader with a vivid picture of one man’s struggle to find his way and his place. At times heartbreakingly, painfully honest, it’s a fascinating look at how circumstances conspire to shape a life, with achingly real depictions of life on the fringes, from the capricious nature of the sea to the determination of those with nothing else to rely on. It has its flaws – the thinly-drawn supporting cast, especially the female characters, and a pace that won’t suit everyone – but stands as an intriguing book nonetheless, and one that will certainly suit multiple readings.