Friday, June 3, 2016

Review: Sweetland

Sweetland Sweetland by Michael Crummey
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I can’t deny the skill of this, but it is unrelentingly depressing. Moses Sweetland is the last holdout as the Canadian government wants to offer a collective resettlement package to the residents of a small and dying island community. As he confronts the inexorable fact of his situation, he explores old grudges, disappointments and disasters. The place is rich in history, but it’s a small, local history. And Moses, the keeper of those memories (almost literally so since he was the longtime lighthouse keeper) has almost no one to leave them to.

I couldn’t have chosen a more affecting time to read this, since I got to a big chunk of it on a return to my hometown for a visit to my dementia-suffering mother. It was too easy to see the town of Sweetland as a reflection of my own town, where the only friends I have left are in their late 80s and the only stories we have are the old ones. I felt my own home slipping away, and reading this was an echo of that feeling.

This novel holds up pretty well throughout, sustaining its difficult story and sustaining its depressing valedictory tone. But it is one awful moment after another, all woven together in a manner that reflects the nets many of the island’s fishermen once used. Moses is a stubborn and compelling figure, but his grudging love for a great-nephew afflicted with Asperger’s Syndrome is quietly beautiful.

I’ll caution that this gradually comes to rely on an unreliable narrator. That gets confusing, and sometimes frustrating, but it does feel right since, as Moses’s situation disintegrates, so does much of his capacity to keep his own mind together.

I admire this more than I can recommend it. Reading it did bring the gift of seeing my old home town in the light of its own sunset, but know going in that it’s a beautiful downer of a book.

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