Sweetland: One man up against a world that won’t stop changing

SWEETLAND opens with ghostly voices heard against the wail of the foghorn by Moses Sweetland, a fisherman stranded at sea overnight in the fog. The voices belong to a boatload of dying Sri Lankan migrants, set adrift without food or water in the North Atlantic by unscrupulous people-traffickers.

Sweetland

Michael Crummey

Corsair €20.55;

ebook, €11.99

Review: Alannah Hopkin

This eerie scenario is echoed some 300 pages later, when Moses, demented by loneliness, hunger, and injuries, walks out on a winter night towards the lighthouse , and sees his former neighbours — “A press of silent figures with their faces turned to the open sea” — walking in procession along the headland, himself among them. The novel, and presumably Sweetland’s tormented life, ends poignantly with the simple line: “He felt of a sudden like singing.”

Sweetland’s account of a remote maritime community is a tour de force combining poetic vision with viscerally realistic writing. Sweetland is a sparsely populated island off the coast of Newfoundland, founded some 200 years ago by the ancestors of Moses Sweetland, the novel’s 69-year-old protagonist. Moses was a fisherman until a moratorium on cod fishing put him out of a job in 1992, and a lighthouse keeper until automation took away that job too. There is no longer any practical reason for this small community to struggle on through the long, inhospitable winters, nor for the government to continue subsidising their existence. Most of the islanders agree to take the government’s generous resettlement grant, which will only come into effect if everyone on the island accepts it. Eventually only the stubborn, enigmatic Moses, with his terribly scarred face, continues to resist, becoming the sole obstacle between his community and their well-funded new life on the mainland. There are anonymous threats, and dead rabbit heads are placed on his doorstep.

Michael Crummey is a native of Newfoundland, and the dialogue, with its idiosyncratic grammar, is used to great effect. The tone is tragic and elegiac, the rare moments of humour very black, and most of the characters half-mad. The island’s remoteness and its harsh climate have nurtured a cast of feisty eccentrics, male and female, who are as odd as their names: Wince Pilgrim and his dog, Diesel, Reet (Rita) Verge, Queenie Coffin, Duke Fewer… The island’s only village is so small that, back in the days of the cod fishery, each boat could be identified by the particular noise of its engine as it passed the breakwater.

As the contemporary drama unfolds, Moses’ past life is skillfully revealed in a series of vivid scenarios, beginning with his rescue of the Sri Lankans, and its aftermath. Moses, who has never married, has only two living relatives, his niece and her son, Jesse, a lively, intelligent boy who is being treated for symptoms of autism. Moses and Jesse have a strong bond, and Moses has an instinctive ability to calm the boy. But the Reverend is also taking a close interest in the troubled child, for reasons that are soon revealed. An incident at sea involving Jesse, and memories of Moses’ brother Hollis, who drowned as a teenager, leads Moses to sign up for the resettlement grant, to everyone’s great relief. But later he changes his mind, and fakes his own death at sea, waiting until the island is empty before coming back.

Sweetland is a slow, dense read, the present-time story constantly cast in a new light as the backstory is gradually revealed. The reader views the characters as if through a sea mist, fading in and out of focus. The bravura final section effectively conveys both Moses’ increasingly delusional state of mind, and of the pain of a dying community. This is a challenging read, but well worth the effort.


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