Cecily's book reviews

In general I've written reviews of every book I've read since I joined GoodReads (RIP) in May 08, along with one or two I read prior to that. More recent reviews tend to be longer (sometimes a tad too long?). I always carry a book, though I don't get as much time as I'd like to get engrossed - life is busy, but in a good way. Too many of my favourite authors died without writing enough! Apart from reading, and writing about reading, I enjoy Scrabble, good restaurants, woodland, and attending the theatre.
The Shipping News - Annie Proulx This is my first Proulx, so I don't know if the unusual writing style is typical, or specially chosen for this particular story. I hope it's the latter, as it works very well.

It covers a couple of years (plus some backstory) in the life of thirty-something Quoyle: a big, lonely, awkward and unattractive man, always having or doing the wrong thing. He is a not very successful journalist in New York, who ends up moving, with his young daughters (Bunny and Sunshine) and aunt, to a small, somewhat inbred, community in Newfoundland where the aunt and his late father grew up. Somehow Proulx keeps the reader on the fence: he isn't especially lovable, and yet he elicits more sympathy than mockery in this reader.

I think one weakness is that the mother of the girls is too horrible, and the manner of her departure from their lives stretched my credulity somewhat.


The narrative style is the first thing to hit. It is very distinctive, continues throughout the book, and could be infuriating, though I didn't find it so. It is telegraphic and observational, reflecting Quoyle's job. There are staccato sentence fragments, and some overworked analogies, some of which are wonderfully vivid, and a few of which are laughably awful. Grammar sticklers may struggle to enjoy this book, but it's their loss - context is all, and in this context, I think it works.

If I were as clever and witty as some of my GR friends (you know who you are), I would have written this review in the style of the book.

Anyway, some typical examples:

This is the entire opening paragraph of a chapter:
"The aunt in her woolen coat when Quoyle came into the motel room. Tin profile with a glass eye. A bundle on the floor under the window. Wrapped in a bed sheet, tied with net twine."

Another whole paragraph:
"Near the window a man listened to a radio. His buttery hair swept behind ears. Eyes pinched close, a mustache. A packet of imported dates on his desk. He stood up to shake Quoyle's hand. Gangled. Plaid bow tie and ratty pullover. The British accent strained through his splayed nose."

* "eyes the color of plastic"
* "the sullen bay rubbed with thumbs of fog"
* "On the horizon icebergs like white prisons. The immense blue fabric of the sea, rumpled and creased."
* "parenthesis around her mouth set like clamps. Impossible to know if she was listening to Nutbeem or flying over the Himalayas"
* "In a way he could not explain she seized his attention; because she seemed sprung from wet stones, the stench of fish and tide."
* "eyes like a thorn bush, stabbing everything at once"
* The ghost of his wife, "Petal's essence riding under his skin like an injected vaccine against the plague of love"
* "Fingernails like the bowls of souvenir spoons." (That's the whole sentence.)


Aspects of the town and its characters remind me of David Lynch's 1980s TV series "Twin Peaks": strange characters, often with impairments of mind, body or emotions, slightly strange names, odd superstitions, and dark secrets (murder, incest, rape, insurance fraud).

The town of Killick Claw isn't prosperous, and the environment is still harsh, but it's better than when the aunt grew up there: "The forces of fate weakened by unemployment insurance, a flaring hope in offshore oil money."

The Gammy Bird is the local paper, and it's like no other: lots of adverts (many of them fake), deliberate typos and Malapropisms, libelous gossip (including a regular catalogue of sex abuse cases!), shipping news and "we run a front-page photo of a car wreck every week, whether we have a wreck or not". Poor Quoyle is bemused and has the uneasy and familiar feeling "of standing on a playground watching others play games whose rules he didn't know".


Knots are the most obvious one. Each chapter opens with a quotation pertinent to what it contains, and many are from [b:Ashley Book of Knots|816629|Ashley Book of Knots|Clifford Ashley|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1347299828s/816629.jpg|802526], which Proulx found second-hand, and gave her the inspiration and structure she sought. Knots feature in the plot metaphorically (in terms of being bound or adrift), in a more literal and superstitious sense. We also learn that Quoyle's name means "coil of rope", and I suppose he is pretty tightly coiled for the first half of the book.

Shipping is obvious, too, not just from the title, but because Quoyle ends up writing the eponymous shipping news in the local paper, in a community where everyone needs a boat. Most of the introductory quotes that are not from Ashley Book of Knots are from a Mariner's Dictionary. I confess there were times when the quantity and level of detail slightly exceeded my interest, but I'm glad I stuck with it.

The book is riddled with pain, rejection, estrangement and mentions of abusive relationships (never graphic); many are haunted by ghosts of past events and relationships gone wrong. But although it is sometimes bleak, it is rarely depressing, and sometimes it's funny. Even close and fond relationships often have an element of awkwardness and distance; for instance, Quoyle always refers to "the aunt", rather than "my aunt". Even after living with her for a while, "It came to him he knew nearly nothing of the aunt's life. And hadn't missed the knowledge.

Ultimately, it's at least as much about (re)birth and healing as death and doom. One character slowly realises it may be possible to recover from a broken relationship: "was love then lie a bag of assorted sweets passed around from which one might choose more than once?"


* "a failure of normal appearance" - if you can't even achieve that, what hope is there?
* "believed in silent suffering, didn't see that it goaded"
* In a shop, "the man's fingers dropped cold dimes"
* "fog shuddered against their faces"
* "the house was garlanded with wind"
* In such a harsh environment, "The wood, hardened by time and corroding weather, clenched the nails fast"
* "a few torn pieces of early morning cloud the shape and color of salmon fillets" (I think I'd prefer that one without the fish)
* "the woman in the perpetual freeze of sorrow, afloat on the rise and fall of tattered billows"
* a babysitter "doing overtime in a trance of electronic color and simulated life, smoking cigarettes and not wondering. The floor around her strewn with hairless dolls."

From The Ashley Book of Knots:
"To prevent slipping, a knot depends on friction, and to provide friction there must be pressure of some sort."

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