It’s hard for people to love you if you don’t love yourself. Or that’s what we’re told again and again if we’re unfortunate enough to struggle with low self esteem. It’s a problematic cliché in that it implies that if you don’t feel lovable – if you are depressed or feel unworthy due to some traumatic experience – you’re right. But as troubling as it is, it is true that it can be hard to love someone who doesn’t seem to understand his or her own worth. A friend who constantly bats away compliments, a lover who regularly asks for reassurance that you want to be with them, a parent who seems always full of regret and guilt. It is hard to love someone when it seems as if there is nowhere for that love to go within that person, when they won’t – or can’t – make a space for it.
Quoyle is very hard to love. He is easy to ignore, take advantage of, hold up as a cautionary tale. Easy to cast a judgmental glance at, easy to pity, easy to forget. He has “a great damp loaf of a body,” a horribly large chin, and a general sense about him that his physical and mental existence is simply wrong. His early life wasn’t great – his brother was particularly mean and his father clearly preferred the brother – and once his parents were done with him, he continued to give himself what he believed he deserved.
The first quarter of the book is damp, heavy and sad, and the oaf of a protagonist clumsily pulls us along as he attempts to create a new life for himself, his two daughters and his aunt near the fishing village of Killick-Claw.
But the Pulitzer Prize-winning picture Annie Proulx paints of Quoyle, whose name is a not subtle reference to a coil of rope important to Newfoundland fishermen, is not a sympathetic one for the reader. Her descriptions of how he sees himself as a teenager – “as a distant figure: there in the foreground was his family; here, at the limit of the far view, was he” – bring an eye-rolling reminder of the young entitled “nice guy” more than a tug on the heartstrings. As he gets older, things just get worse. He is so listless and hopeless, the sentences about his life can’t even bother to be complete (it takes some time to get used to the fragments in the first few chapters.) Woe is Quoyle. We watch as he takes a job with a boss who disrespects him – again and again, getting fired and going back – and marries a woman who could not care less about him or their children. He just shrugs, mopes, eats. His luck is so horrible that it’s almost comical, but his resignation to it all verges on infuriating.
But maybe that’s just the New Yorker in this reviewer. Maybe I simply don’t have the patience of the Newfoundlanders, a slow, deliberate, unfussy group of people of which Proulx is a member for half of each year. Though Quoyle was born in Brooklyn and grew up in upstate New York himself, his temperament fits much more seamlessly in cold, wet Canada. The first quarter of the book is damp, heavy and sad, and the oaf of a protagonist clumsily pulls us along as he attempts to create a new life for himself, his two daughters and his aunt in their family’s historic home in Quoyle’s Point, near the fishing village of Killick-Claw.
Quoyle is a newspaper man by trade, though not by passion, at least not at first. He writes the “shipping news” for the Gammy Bird, but a draw to the fishing life is inevitable from the start. Proulx uses definitions and phrases from sources including The Ashley Book of Knots to give a theme to each chapter and move things along, which is helpful when empathy fatigue for Quoyle sets in. But just when the reader is ready to give up right along with the protagonist, things start to get interesting.
The Shipping News is a coming of age story about a man who waited almost half of his life to come of age.
Killick-Claw turns out to have secrets and scandal, as does Quoyle’s own family. Some of it is so ridiculous that it adds some much needed humor to the book, while some is truly heartbreaking. Those pieces of the book are written so lyrically, and evoke so much empathy, it’s almost hard to believe they share a binding with the story’s first pages.
But as Quoyle evolves, the writing evolves, in a style very few writers can successfully execute. As the character develops, changes, notices himself for the first time, the writing becomes more clear, and even the weather gets better. As Quoyle learns to write and allow his voice to come through, Proulx’s loosens up as well.
Proulx is not sparing with metaphors or similes or unbelievably bad luck, but the point of this book is drama. It’s a quieter drama than many readers accustomed to modern fiction might be used to, but it seems to be a drama truer to the reality of Newfoundland, which Proulx knows well.
The Shipping News is a coming of age story about a man who waited almost half of his life to come of age. It’s also a reminder of what we miss if we wallow in self-pity, or neglect to take advantage of the small control we have of our own fortunes.