Annie Proulx, The Shipping News
The Shipping News is “an account of a few years in the life of Quoyle”, a man who lives in Mockingburg, New York. Overweight, self-conscious, called a failure by both his father and brother, he grows up to become a man with no self-esteem or ambition. After a succession of diverse jobs, he finally ends up a mediocre journalist for the local paper. When his only friend, Partridge, moves to California, he becomes prey to a lecherous woman.
When Quoyle marries his “Demon Lover”, she turns to other men, shunning him completely. She dies in a car crash as she is fleeing with a lover after kidnapping and selling their two little girls: Bunny and Sunshine. Quoyle, who has lost both his parents in the same week, is completely devastated: he is still madly in love with his unworthy wife…
Quoyle’s aunt, Agnis Hamm, who was not spared by life either, comes to meet her nephew and manages to convince him to try his luck in Newfoundland Island, where she is herself headed: the house of their ancestors is still standing and they both have nothing to lose. So, with Bunny and Sunshine, Agnis and Quoyle soon drive and ship to Newfoundland…
From there, the slow rhythm of the novel unfolds life on the Rock: a land of fishermen, men and women hardened by the harsh climate and difficult life but facing it with bravery and a strong sense of comradeship. Quoyle gets a job at the Gammy Bird, where Jack Buggit, the boss, puts him in charge of covering the car wrecks and shipping news.
Slowly, Quoyle will find his place in a land where his roots, however despicable, are strongly felt, where the ghosts of his ancestors are almost palpable. He will make sense of both his job, even if he is rebuked at first by the idea of covering car wrecks (which reminds him of the death of Petal, his wife), and his personal life, eventually understanding that love doesn’t necessary comes with pain and misery.
Along the way Quoyle will encounter unusual characters like Jack Buggit and his son Dennis, for whom fishing is a calling and a curse, Billy Pretty, who writes local gossips with a fierce hand, Tert Card, who dreams about Florida, and Wavey, the “Tall and Quiet” woman. Quoyle himself is a passive character who goes with the flow and yields to his aunt’s strong personality, but I was happy to see him finally show some guts towards the end.
The Shipping News alternates choppy journalistic style with lyric sentences, giving a heterogeneous but pleasant result: Annie Proulx undeniably knows how to tell a story. The problem is that this lack of unity is also found in the story itself. It hesitates between different genres, as if the author did not know where she was really going. At times focusing on Quoyle, at other times on fishing and boating anecdotes reminding the Perfect Storm, which is quite fine, it however also reminded me of a travel guide or a boat instruction manual, which annoyed and bored me.
There is potential in The Shipping News for a good, or even an excellent novel. Unfortunately, as soon as my interest was aroused by an anecdote or a turn of events, its resolution was delayed by pages of gratuitous descriptions. It seemed as if Annie Proulx didn’t want to spoil any of the material she gathered during her conversations with boat builders or fishermen. She did indeed an extensive work of research, but I would have been happier with an expurgated version of its result.
I am not afraid of a big book (and I don’t consider this one big at all but even worse: it seemed big!), nor am I the kind of reader who appreciates only plot-driven stories. But in this particular case I think that Proulx would have provided a more satisfying result had she made some cuts here and there. Many readers probably disagree with me, since this book won the Pulitzer Prize plus National Book Award. Well, I don’t let awards influence my opinion. I judge a book by the level of pleasure I derive from reading it. The thing is: I have trouble forgiving a book for boring me, and frankly, The Shipping News bored me quite a lot…