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The Shipping News is one of the books that I regularly re-read. I chose it initially because of the cover of my copy, a rough and icy sea breaking on rocks, and also the title of the book. Having been at sea for most of my adult life I thought this was one for me. There was also the little added bonus of it being the winner of The Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, The Irish Times International Prize and The National Book Award. There was the possibility of a good read ahead indeed.
This is not, in my opinion a cosy, warm book. It deals with too much of the harsh realities of life for that but it does centre on love of all kinds, romantic, friendship, family and sexual. The main character is Quoyle, a huge lump of a man hampered by his ungainly physical appearance and described as a hapless, hopeless hack journalist living in New York. After the death of his faithless wife in a car crash Quoyle is left in despair with his two young daughters who are out of control and no idea on how to keep on living.
Help comes from an unexpected corner in the form of his estranged Aunt who persuades him to take a job with the local newspaper "The Gammy Bird" in a remote corner of Newfoundland close to where the family originally lived, and, to return to the house at desolate Quoyle's Point which was dragged across the island by Quoyle's ancestors! At first Quoyle is completely out of his depths in all manner of ways. For a start he is terrified of water in a society that lives as much on sea as it does on land. He is put to work covering car crashes! and all the tiny minutia of work that makes up an extremely unusual local newspaper. At last he and his family start to find their feet and he graduate to covering the The Shipping News but the journey along the way is filled with both heartache and comedy.
I hesitate out of sheer awe to make any comment on Annie Proulx's writing, her characters spring to life in their all too human form and you feel completely drawn in to their dilemmas and dreams. Each chapter is pre-fixed by a small quote and sometimes a drawing from "The Ashley Book of Knots", picked up from a yard sale which was the inspiration for the writing of this extraordinary novel. As so much of the book is to do with newspapers her short, sharp and to the point prose reflects this. Quoyle thinks in "headlines" much like reviewers think in "review"! I also love the list technique that she uses, not one type of seaweed but twelve, not one type of grass but eight, they are like the knots tied in a rope to measure the speed of a boat. She portrays the wildness of her setting and the sea as another character around which everyone revolves and this, against the claustrophobia of remote isolated communities draws you in. You are fascinated but maybe wouldn't want to live there!
Well I think you can tell I like it! I return to it time and again particularly on wild and windy nights, some books are just made for reading in specific types of weather. All of her characters feel real and are all a bit odd ball due to living in such a desolate and harsh environment. I know a film has been made of the book but I don't think I will ever watch it as I can't see how it could do justice to such a great book. Even if you get sea-sick please try to read this book!
5 stars from me, can't wait to find another book by this author.
Published by "Fourth Estate" www.4thestate.co.uk by copy cost 7.99pounds and is 337pages long.
Thanks for reading my review which is also posted on Ciao under splishsplash.
This is a story about a man named Quoyle, whose name means "a coil of rope", and whose life seems to be a very tangled one indeed. The book opens as follows:
"Here is an account of a few years in the life of Quoyle, born in Brooklyn and raised in a shuffle of dreary upstate towns.
"Hive-spangled, gut roaring with gas and cramp, he survived childhood; at the state university, hand clapped over his chin, he camouflaged torment with smiles and silence. Stumbled through his twenties and into his thirties learning to separate his feelings from his life, counting on nothing. He ate prodigiously, liked a ham knuckle, buttered spuds."
How much is packed into these two short paragraphs! You can see this man already, and feel how awkward his life is and has been. It seems that Ms. Proulx's deft and poetic prose is able to pull us in immediately and get us tangled into the ropes of this man's life before we've even turned past the first page. We can see that this simple, quiet man is going to be, what I would call "accidentally interesting" in that he seems more a victim of his own life rather than a perpetrator. His protruding chin and his large, lumbering size certainly aren't things that are his fault, but neither are they things he tries all that hard to change. And, it seems, that Proulx uses this as a partial metaphor to his life.
The book centers mostly on two main things. Firstly, that of Quoyle's desperate love for his wife, who is the mother of his two girls (whom he adores), a woman who never loved him and who was constantly cheating on him and being mean and cruel to him. Even after her death he is unable to let go of his infatuation for this horrid woman. And it isn't surprising that the only thing he can figure out to do in order to get away from his painful memories is to move away. This brings us to the other main part of this story - Quoyle's move to his abandoned ancestral home in Newfoundland with his two daughters and his Aunt (and her dog).
Newfoundland isn't a very familiar setting to many readers, probably because it isn't a place that is highly populated. But from what we learn through this book, it is as fascinating as it is starkly wild and beautiful. Proulx paints us pictures through her words that describe this landscape along with the unique people that Quoyle encounters there. We learn that the harsh terrain apparently has some influence on the personalities of those who have chosen to live there (or at least those who have chosen not to leave), and the people are as vastly strange and different and jumbled as the countryside itself.
As I read this book, I felt that it was a story of misery and pain - both emotional and physical. However, it isn't just that. It is also a story of existing, learning how to cope with existing, and learning how to cope with both emotional and physical misery and pain. But this book also is one about not only being pulled along by life's tide, but also about learning how to swim through the undertow of life. This is probably one of the more intricate parallels that Proulx drew upon when she decided to place this particular story in a shipping town in Newfoundland.
Quoyle's life quickly becomes tied up in the everyday goings on of his new residence, much like the knots that are described at the start of each new chapter in this book. Proulx uses these short descriptions of sailor's knots interspersed with Newfoundland and sailing terms to foreshadow the events in the coming chapter. This tool is not often used today in modern fiction, and I personally found it refreshing and fascinating that she revived it for this book. I've always liked the idea of having chapters named and not just numbered - that way, I can go back and see if I can figure out what the author was trying to point to as being particularly significant in that chapter when she named it.
As I mentioned before, Proulx's style is very poetic. It is probably the reason why those that have seen the film and didn't find it particularly impressive, will find the book so amazingly to the opposite. I have often found that when a book of this caliber is made into a movie, there is always the chance that it won't properly represent the original words. If the original is as richly descriptive and poetic as The Shipping News (or another excellent example being The English Patient), then either the essence of the story must be hugely changed in order to find a good focus for the film, or the narrative must be included in the soundtrack. Having any of the characters in this book read the amazingly beautiful descriptive passages of this book would have been ridiculous. Therefore, the translation to the movie has required vast changes in the focus of the story, making it far inferior to the original.
This is why I decided I had to write my opinion of this book. From the moment I started reading, I knew that the lyrical style of this book could not possibly be properly made into an equally good movie. The paperback edition I purchased had a picture of Kevin Spacey on the cover. I knew that he would be playing the part of Quoyle - but he has none of the correct physical attributes to play the part, and is far too smooth a personality to play this innocent, lumbering, unattractive and troubled fellow. Too bad about this.
One of the things that struck me most about this book is how little things kept coming up in parallels. There's the aunt and her dog, and then one of Quoyle's daughters suddenly has what seems like frightening visions of a vicious dog. There's the Quoyle's inability to learn how to write a really proper newspaper article on purpose, but suddenly discovers that by accident he does have the talent after all. When his heart is broken by his first wife, he seems unable to believe that love comes with anything but pain, and yet, he stumbles into a relationship with another woman in Newfoundland and doesn't even recognize what is happening to him. Quoyle was unable to learn how to swim as a young boy, but is able to overcome his fear of the water and the vicious sea out of need and accident. All these elements come into play in this elaborate story. I think that now that I've read this book, I'll have to look for more novels by Annie Proulx - she's that good.
And as I read this book, and was pulled into a world that I'd never experienced and never seen before in my life, I was once again reminded how truly wonderful a really well written book is. I'm not in the least surprised that this book has been the recipient of so many awards, including the much treasured Pulitzer Prize. If you all want to see the movie, go right ahead. But me, I'm going to read this book again and again. Why? Because the pictures that Proulx puts in my brain with her words are far more interesting and lively than anything that Hollywood can put right in front of my eyes on the silver screen. If you are looking for a reading experience like this, I would highly suggest you find a copy of this book because it is simply superb!
Davida Chazan © October 2002, revised June 2006
This book is available at Amazon.co.uk published by Fourth Estate; ISBN: 1857022424 for £6.39 (and that price hasnt changed since I first wrote this review four years ago!). Also available in hardcover, large print hard cover, audio cassette and audio CD.
I wrote this review long before Annie Proulx's short story "Brokeback Mountain" became a hugely successful film. Too bad it wasn't her 2nd hugely successful film, since the film of this was poor at best but that shouldn't stop you from reading this book.
I haven't seen the motion picture, The Shipping News, but the book was bought to my attention by virtue of the film. I was listening to an interview with Dame Judi Dench and she happened to mention how wonderful she found the book and so when Tesco's were offering it for just under £2, I ordered it. £2 for a new book is a real bargain. The Shipping News was penned (or probably word processed) by Annie Proulx a Canadian lady who did not publish her first novel until she was 56, this is her second novel and won the Pulitzer prize, The Irish Times International prize and The National Book Award. Huge gongs then for Annie Proulx and please you haters of books with awards do not be put off by them, despite being liked by critics this is a refreshingly easy book to read about a part of the world that I had not experienced as a location for a novel before. The Shipping News is set in Newfoundland, Canada, although Newfoundlander's clearly feel about as Canadian as a the Scots do English. I am sure that puts you in the picture. The narrative features the hapless, blundering, tubby Quoyle, a man who the world appears to have blessed with no confidence, little ability and looks that were more likely to open him to ridicule than female lust - what confidence and ability he did have was firmly kicked and beaten out of him by his father. Finding himself as a widower, following the death of his rather horrible and self-centred wife, Pearl, Quoyle is left as single parent with daughters that are a bit of a handful. To add to the mess, his father dies and he loses his job as bit part local reporter for a small local New York newspaper. Enter his Auntie Hamm - who picks him up by the scruff of his neck and persuades him and his daughters to join her in a return to the land of their forefathers, Newfoundland and the old dilapidated family home. Quoyle is to learn that there was more than met the eye to his ancestors and certainly more than meet
s the eye to life on this sleepy backwater of an Island. Once again Quoyle becomes employed as an average hack - this time on Newfoundland's leading local and "comical" paper, The Gammy Bird. A newspaper specialising in front pages features of car and boat wrecks; as many stories of indecent assault and paedophilia as the paper can get its grubby mitts on (although something about Newfoundland seems to give it a greater share than you would think possible of perverted delinquents); and the shipping news - a bland page of what ships arrived and left the main harbour and from where and to where they are heading. Quoyle has found his niche with the shipping news in more ways that one. Oh and it seems that everyone who appears in court on the island, decides to perform some kind of strip act. The success of the paper serves to illustrate modern societies greed for information about the unfortunate and bizarre, probably so that the readers can feel safe in their own cocooned perceived normality. Quoyle's loneliness and insecurities seem to abate contained in the cosy life on Newfoundland and slowly but surely he finds himself fitting in and rediscovering his abilities and self-confidence and finding that his new life might just suit him after all. This is not a book with a huge plot line running through it. It is distinctly character driven rather than plot driven and personally, I often prefer this type of read. There are times where in between chapters whole months have passed and so the narrative can seem a little disjointed in places, but then being a book about people there are times when whole months elapse in a person's life and all that person has done is follow their little routine. This is a book about people and how they can find themselves again after years of punishment by modern society. It is about nature and how people still live away from all the mod-cons of society, although, Newfoundland suffers a
t the hands of the modern global economy with its waters being fished dry by corporate powers and large trawlers with the result that locals struggle to adapt to a life without fishing and look for other ways to earn their keep. This is also a book very much about love in its different forms, for Quoyle love has always led to bad things, an abusive father and in certain ways an abusive wife. Proulx beautifully points out that love can mean all kinds of different things for different people and different things at different times of their lives. In Newfoundland Quoyle is told that there are four kinds of woman "The Demon Lover. The Stout-hearted Woman. Maids in the Meadows. The Tall Quiet Woman." Maybe to pigeon hole all types of women into four categories is a little on the generalist side, but this observation does hold merit. The Shipping News also has a comical side, Quoyle has a habit of observing his life experiences as a headline writer would and at times these boil life down to its ultimate ridiculous simplicity and capture the whole essence of a scene in the book in a few words, whilst giving the reader a few laugh out loud moments. "Man with hangover listens to boat project variables." "Newspaper reporter seems magnet for dead men!" "Girl fears white dog, relatives marvellously upset!" There are probably about 50 or so of these strewn through the book and they add marvellous light relief. This is an easy flowing book, whilst it is certainly not fast paced, meandering along at the speed of an eccentric Newfoundlander's life (slow), it is deeply absorbing. The style captures the local dialect and slang moreover, the dialogue in the novel really brings its sometimes larger than life characters to life in the mind. The book features a rich tapestry of characters depicting a society in flux, the older are more eccentric and wish just to be left to fish, whilst the younger generation real
ise that the old Newfoundland ways are fading fast and something else has to take the place of fishing, but what? The descriptions of storms really make you feel that you could be wrapped up warm in a cosy Newfoundland house whilst the sea and wind rages all around you and this ability to transport the reader to almost a different world with an easy writing style is to be much admired. The Shipping News is clever, intelligent, moving, observant on the nuances of social interaction, comical and in a way it has a rugged beauty, much I expect like the coast of a storm battered island has. But most of all The Shipping News is a strangely uplifting read. This is a very good book, that I deeply enjoyed, but I was left wondering why it has had so much critical acclaim, there are lots of good books out there that don't find this. Perhaps it is because the character of Quoyle is one that I will never forget. Published by Fourth Estate. Priced £6.99 in paperback, or £5.59 plus postage and packaging from amazon.co.uk. ISBN 1-84115-059-2. Further details of all Fourth Estate books and authors can be found at www.4thestate.com.
A darkly comic portrait of human life and possibility. Quoyle is a hopeless hack journalist working in New York. When his two-timing wife dies in a road accident, he retreats to his ancestral home on the coast of Newfoundland where he must confront the unpredictable forces of nature and society