Wayne Johnston is a national (Canadian) treasure. He creates characters both real and fictional who can come from only one place: Newfoundland. Even when he transplants them to New York temporarily or permanently, as he seems to do frequently (not sure why), they still retain their quirky idiosyncrasies that mark them as Newfies. That his tales are tall--even when dealing with historical figures such as Joey Smallwood--is irrelevant, when the characters are this appealing and this richly rendered.The Custodian of Paradise
is so atmospheric that I could almost hear the fog horn blow and feel a damp chill in my bones while reading it. I couldn't help but make the inevitable comparison to The Colony Of Unrequited Dreams
, to which it is indirectly linked. But, no matter how much I loved Shelagh Fielding, riddled with vices, physical and emotional infirmities--and oh, how I did love her--I was left wanting something more from this novel than just a deeply detailed character study.
As wonderful, sad, witty, traumatized, complex, troubled, strong and funny as Fielding is, she didn't have enough foils to play off of (it's late and I'm dangling prepositions--I'll come back and clean this up later). She was stuck out there alone on the abandoned isle of Loreburn, and had to tell her story through flashbacks, letters and her journal entries. Hence we got a quasi-epistolary style (not as much as in Clara Callan
, in some ways a similar novel, but close), which almost never fails to be clumsy. It just didn't let her shine. Then again, the whole point was to show how 'internal' she was; how much she had repressed, how she had swallowed her heartbreak and loss and drawn in upon herself to the point where she was left isolated, ill and alone with her demons on an abandoned island off the coast of Newfoundland. So I guess I can forgive this stylistic issue.
Really, her character or the lack of supporting characters around her was not my major issue: it was the device and plot of 'The Provider.' Tales of Newfoundland and Newfoundlanders are rife with mysterious visitors and long-lost crazy relatives--heck, the island is overrun with them--but this one (The Provider) was just...unreal. It went beyond the mysterious stranger into magical territory for me. Seven feet tall, able to withstand raging snowstorms and appear and disappear seemingly at will, I just didn't buy it. And I didn't buy two other things: 1) The Provider's motivation for shadowing Fielding her entire life (much less his ability to do so); and 2) Fielding's motivation for finding and staying on Loreburn.
Now, perhaps I'm being too much a stickler for these details being grounded in some kind of contextual or psychological reality. But in The Colony Of Unrequited Dreams
, Johnston created a fantastic story, much of which was as outlandish and unlikely, but none of which violated the psychological motivation or inherent logic of the character(s). The Custodian of Paradise
is slightly less successful, as while Fielding's character is extremely tight psychologically, her motivation for going to Loreburn is less so. Perhaps it's precisely because she is so well-thought out psychologically, any inconsistency in motivation stands out in relief. And when that motivation is linked to a character who is more magical than real, well...it just doesn't add up.
Fielding's cynical exterior, quick wit and toughness belie her tortured heart. We know the pain that lies behind every smartmouthed utterance and quickwitted insult. It is heartbreaking to know how tortured she is, and to watch her conceal her longing and pain behind a tough facade. I won't give away details here, but this--this!--is the heart of the story, and of Shelagh's character, and this is the reason to read this book. I'm just not sure that Johnston had to put her way out on that island being followed around by a mysterious father figure to tell it.
All that aside, this is still among the finest of the many novels I've read over the past couple of months, and I'd rate it second only to Colony
among this author's many exceptional novels.