Now this is a book to savor

Everywhere I look I see some permutation of “Best of” lists around the ‘sphere, and although I certainly have plenty of novels under consideration for the honor, I’m also glad I hadn’t committed to any sort of list yet — because if I had, then one of the best books I have read this year — and actually, in a few years — would have slipped completely under my radar.

Truth is, it’s pretty likely that it’s under most people’s radar as well, because it is (to the best of my knowledge) only available in Canada, published by a well-regarded but still small press that is primarily devoted to authors based or from Atlantic Canada. Hopefully, that status will change someday, because if my instincts are correct, I think this book is a harbinger of great things to come — and may mark Nicole Lundrigan as a serious contender for the next Great Canadian Novelist.

I’d first heard Lundrigan’s name last year when Margaret Cannon, the Globe and Mail’s crime columnist, reviewed her first book, UNRAVELLING ARVA. It so impressed Cannon that she named it as one of her Top Ten Crime Novels of 2004, raving about Lundrigan’s talent for creating memorable characters and most of all, her voice. I knew I wanted to read this book (and remembered saying so at the time of the original review) but for whatever reason, never got around to it.

Fast forward more than a year to this past July, and Cannon again reviews Lundrigan’s work within her column, heaping yet more praise upon novel number two, THAW. Again, I had the same reaction, but since it wasn’t available in the US, I figured I would wait till my next trip back home to pick up a copy. And so, a few days ago, I did.

Am I ever glad I made that decision.

THAW reminds me of the finest gourmet chocolate. You know it’s excellent and absolutely worth it, but gorging on too much of it as a time might make you feel a bit sick. But you continue to eat it because how often do you get to eat such good chocolate? And same with this book, because it’s really not so often you get to indulge in some of the most gorgeous prose I’ve had the pleasure to read in some time. It’s langurous, requires the reader to make a commitment to read it slowly and carefully, and is infused with emotion and tragedy and feeling that it will stick in the brain for a long time afterwards. Granted, I only finished the book yesterday, but I highly doubt I’ll be able to get the story of young Tilley Gover, his fractured family, and the denizens of Cupboard Cove, Newfoundland grappling with their lives in the late 1960s out of my head.

Another reviewer said that THAW might be the first in a new genre called Newfoundland Gothic, which surprised Lundrigan to a fair degree. Call it what you want, but there is a deep sense of foreboding and tragedy that certainly kept me reading, even when all Lundrigan did was describe what various characters ate for breakfast. It’s the very feeling that this meal is more important than any other, or that it may lead to terrible things, which is so rare to sustain throughout an entire narrative.

I haven’t said much about the storyline because it’s difficult to capture in a few sentences. That said, everything stems back to the birth of Hazel Boone during a raging blizzard in 1898, described in THAW’s prologue. Afterwards, Hazel’s mother struggles with the unexpected event and getting herself home:

The husband tugged at his wife’s arm and she conceded. She was too weak to persist. As they pressed onwards through the blizzard, the wind grew weary and the night calmed. The woman stole rapid breaths through damp mittens that were pressed over her deadened nose. Surrounding her, the air was blissfully aglow as moonlight bounced off every fat flak. Might be a certain beauty to it, she imagined, if only she could step aside. Then again, she pondered as she stopped to rest outside her saltbox home, the beauty itself might only reside inside this fleeting blindness.

Beauty and blindness figure prominently in THAW,along with more earthy subjects of budding sexuality, childhood tragedy and abandonment. One of my favorite supporting characters is young Ida Payne, a girl who thinks she understands her own sexual potency but realizes, too late, that she has no idea:

[She…] got to her feet and shook herself. Then, with clothes in disarray, she tore out of the woods without glancing back. Only when seh reached the backyard at Penny Payne’s did she realise her patent leather pumps were still stuck in the muck beside the mattress. She reached down, peeled off the lace-trimmed socks, and clutched them in her fist. Just that morning she had purchased them on the children’s section of Snook’s Drugs with her last bit of allowance, and now they were sullied beyond repair.

But most of all, there is Tilley, a boy who thinks he is destined for greatness but bears the weight of responsibility instilled by growing up in a small town. He’s a sensitive soul sensitively drawn, and as weird as this sounds, I worry about him — what will he do after the events of the book have completed themselves? I don’t know, but I’d love to find out.

And I’d love to find out what Lundrigan does next, because she has a gift. If she can make me fall into the rhythm of sharp, whip-like rural Newfoundland dialect, and carry me into the story already, lord knows what she’ll be capable of as she gets older. Until then, I have UNRAVELLING ARVA to read — as well as a date to be determined to read THAW once again.