Book review – The Shipping News

Annie Proulx’s 1993 novel The Shipping News has been on my radar for a while.  I’ve seen it in the Pulitzer prize for fiction winner’s list (1994) and know that they made a film of it but I was put off by some reviews referring to the author’s prose being ‘too forceful’, ‘clever’ or ‘unusual’.  I obviously decided to take the plunge.

The Shipping News follows our protagonist, Quoyle (pronounced ‘coil’), from New York to Newfoundland, following the death of his repeatedly unfaithful wife, Petal, in a car crash alongside her lover.  The serially downtrodden and tragic Quoyle is left in sole charge (both of his parents committed an act of double suicide in Quoyle’s youth) of his two daughters and is persuaded by his aunt Agnis to join her in starting a new life in the family’s ancestral home of Newfoundland.

The ancestral home in question is nothing more than an old dilapidated building miles from anywhere and in need of desperate repair and a road to get there.  The only positive thing going for Quoyle is the fact that his sole friend, Partridge, a fellow reporter back in New York, has set Quoyle up with gainful employment at the Gammy Bird, Newfoundland’s local newspaper.  The Gammy Bird is staffed by a handful of ‘characters’, and an owner with a predilection for stories on sexual abuse and car crashes, the latter of which Quoyle ends up owning, such is Quoyle’s life.  Quoyle also takes on the shipping news; which ships are coming in and out of the harbour.

I could go on but then I’d just be summarising the book for you; I wouldn’t be giving too much away either.  While there are some family secrets that become unearthed they’re not really fundamental to the plot.  The Shipping News is one of those books where it feels like not an awful lot is happening; you’re just being served up a slice of someone else’s life and that someone being an everyday person, rather than a spy, etc.  In that sense the book is reminiscent of Olive Kitteridge (a more recent novel and reviewed within these pages), i.e. Olive Kitteridge in Newfoundland rather than Maine.

Proulx does a good job in bringing the small town of Killick-Claw to life, the inhabitants of the Gammy Bird, particularly so.  It’s the little things, like the awful coffee served in the local hotel that the locals have grown accustomed to, that help in preventing the book from becoming as dull as ditch water.  Though it’s a close run thing, despite the book being well written enough for you to keep turning the page, as Quoyle gradually finds himself immersed in the community and making the slow but steady transition towards peace, and perhaps even happiness.

I’ve read a number of reviews of TSN and a part of one review seemed to sum it up for me: ‘It is the kind of novel that wins prizes’.  I’d totally agree.  It’s well written and earnest and, as with a number of Pulitzer Prize-winning novels I’ve read, there’s normally a journey involving some form of redemption or salvation.  But did I really care?  Not a lot, frankly.  There are many who love this novel and many who don’t.  I think this is one where you have to make your own mind up.  Same as it ever was…