Here is the third instalment in my primer on the Newfoundland novel. If you missed them, here are links to the Introduction, Part 1 (Lisa Moore’s Alligator), and Part 2 (Wayne Johnston’s The Colony of Unrequited Dreams)
The elevator-pitch for Michael Crumey’s third novel, Galore, would be “if 100 Years of Solitude were set in a Newfoundland outport fishing village.” But, as the elevator doors chimed open, I’d hasten to add “except in a really good and not derivative way!,” because that description is as dangerous as it is apt. Why dangerous? Well, García Márquez-derived magical realism is a tired and overworked patch of literary ground. But I’d argue that, in Crummey’s hands, it becomes fertile and exciting again, and this is so for two reasons: the source material provided by Newfoundland, and the specific cultural work Crummey achieves with it.
Before Galore, Crummey had published poetry and short story collections as well as two novels (I’ll discuss one of these novels, the Giller-short-listed River Thieves, later in this series). Both of his first two novels are historical fiction, and both are written in a grounded realist mode. So Galore is a notable departure in both content and execution. It’s a big, bold, imaginative, energetic book, stuffed to the brim with the improbable oral history and folklore of pre-industrial Newfoundland.
Until very recently, rural Newfoundland was an often-illiterate oral culture, mostly settled in the 18th century, primarily (often overwhelmingly) by people from the southwest of England (think Thomas Hardy’s Wessex) and the area of southeastern Ireland around the “Three Sisters” (the rivers Suir, Nore, and Barrow), with Waterford City as an epicentre. Various combinations of these two founder populations, plus random additions of Aboriginal, French, Welsh, or Scottish people (among others), were left for a couple of centuries to scrape an existence in the various nooks and crannies of the island’s jagged and inhospitable coast – not totally isolated, but isolated enough. This gave the cultural DNA of these founder populations time to combine, evolve, and mutate, as well as an environment which only encouraged such a process. So it’s hardly surprising that Newfoundland has a wealth of folklore, ghost stories, fairy tales, apocryphal history, and so on. This provides material that Crummey puts to good use in Galore. The fictional community of Paradise Deep, where Galore is set, is even structured along the lines of a bifurcated English and Irish origin, with the families of King-Me Sellers (blustering English merchant) and Devine’s Widow (eldritch Irish matriarch) representing the initially disparate cultures that eventually merge into the strange hybrid that is Newfoundland.
But, at the same time, Galore is deflating the touristic cliché version of everything I said in the previous paragraph, which insists on viewing Newfoundland as a strange island off the maps and outside of time, where everyone is charmingly Oirish and it’s perpetually about 1850 by way of 1350. The promotional copy on the back cover even engages with this trope: the book is said to portray “the improbable medieval world that was rural Newfoundland.”
I remember Galore got a lot of traction in the US and world-wide after its release; it was short-listed for the Dublin IMPAC literary award (the world’s most lucrative literary prize), and Crummey was given a feature interview on the Diane Rehm Show on NPR (you can listen to the interview by clicking here). I bought my copy of Galore at McNally Jackson bookstore in Manhattan, and the checkout clerk exclaimed, when I laid it on the counter, “oh, I’ve been meaning to read this! I hear it’s excellent!” This made me happy, but I also wondered in what ways the book’s popularity might be an example of Shipping News syndrome, where the appeal is rooted in how a little-known and remote chunk of white North America is surprisingly revealed as strange and exotic.
But that is also somewhat the point of Galore; Newfoundland was, in Crummey’s vision, a strange and exotic place – but note my use of past-tense there (and the use of past-tense in the back-cover copy: “the improbable medieval world that was rural Newfoundland)”. It was. Galore cuts off in World War II, but it doesn’t just cut off; it loops back to the beginning, suggesting that Newfoundland, between settlement and industrialization/becoming part of Canada, has a kind of circular, infinite-within-its-boundaries existence; it makes that period of Newfoundland’s past something other than normal time, other than normal history. The limitations, privations, fears, and wonders of pre-industrial outport life are scarcely comprehensible to most contemporary Newfoundlanders; this “gone world,” as Crummey calls it elsewhere, remains in living memory for another decade or two, most Newfoundlanders only have a second-hand knowledge of it – we’ve heard of this ‘other’ Newfoundland, but we’ve never been there; it’s only spectral; you can only catch glimpses of it here and there. Those glimpses exist in the traces of ghost stories and fairy stories and folklore, the very material Crummey uses as to construct his text.
In some ways, then, Galore is still a historical novel, it simply has moved from documentary history and written history to oral and cultural history, to intangible felt history. Galore is contemporary Newfoundland’s attempt to come to terms with its estranged past, its emotional and, well, spiritual history, something indistinct but still very slightly perceptible, for a little while longer, at least. Galore is the sort of history which resist verification, which is beyond factuality, the kind of thing that has never been written down in history books, but which can occasionally be captured in literature such as this.