A community on a remote island of Newfoundland has been in gradual decline for decades. Without any real job prospects or potential for growth, young people move away from Sweetland and build their futures in bigger cities; now, the town is mostly populated by an older generation that is dying away. The Canadian government has offered everyone in the community $100,000 to resettle elsewhere on the condition that everyone in the town must sign the contract and leave. Once they do, the government will cease service to the island; ferry services bringing goods will cease, electricity will be cut off, and homes will be boarded up and left to the elements. A ghost town will be created.
Almost everyone in town immediately agrees to sign the contract. It’s obvious that their way of life is dying. Most of the people have few ties to Sweetland; their children have long since moved to the mainland. There’s only one main holdout: Moses Sweetland, an old fisherman whose ancestors founded the island. Without him agreeing to the resettlement package, no one can receive any money. His stubbornness on the matter doesn’t make him very popular with his neighbors.
In refusing the offer, Moses looks back on his life and the people he’s grown up with (some of whom now shun him). He won’t say why he won’t leave, but the thought of Sweetland becoming a ghost town, its residents and history forgotten, obviously bothers him. He spends his days with his niece, Clara, and her autistic son, Jesse, a curious boy with encyclopedic knowledge of subjects that interest him. They’re the last of Moses’s family, although Jesse’s invisible friend happens to be Moses’s brother, who died as a teenager in a fishing accident that Moses rarely speaks of. It’s on account of Jesse that Moses pushed himself into the twenty-first century; he has a laptop, an internet connection, and a Facebook account in order to communicate with Jesse whenever they’re not together.
Sweetland isn’t without its quirky residents. Queenie Coffin is Moses’s neighbor; she reads trashy romance novels and hasn’t set foot outside her house in decades. She signed the resettlement agreement, but she’s adamant that the only way she’s leaving her house is in a coffin. There’s Loveless, who has never had any common sense. There’s a barbershop where Moses goes to chat and play chess, although no hair has ever been cut inside those doors. Sweetland is the kind of place where everyone is matter-of-fact and no one locks their doors. They suffer through brutal winters, and fog might come and blanket everything without notice.
A tragedy happens on the island while the resettlement battle wages on. In the days that follow the tragedy, Moses makes a rash decision that will affect the rest of his life and impact the few people he still has ties to. I can’t say much more than that without giving away major spoilers, so I’ll stop there. What I will say is that this book is beautifully elegiac, referencing a way of life that will soon be gone.
I fell in love with Michael Crummey when I read his last book, Galore. I was expecting Sweetland to be dark and speculative fiction-y, but I think “haunting” would be the most appropriate term. It’s quiet and gloomy and brutally realistic (a bit of an inside joke in the book; Queenie Coffin struggles through depressing literary fiction by Newfoundlanders with grim patriotism, but she hates it; Moses himself throws an award-winner into the sea). Nonetheless, Moses is haunted, literally and figuratively, by ghosts from Sweetland’s past. One recurring image in the book is that of the disappearing face; many faces disappear into the water, or the fog, or the darkness. In reflecting on this book, the ethereal disappearing face is the image that is most seared into my mind.
I finished this book a few weeks ago and I still can’t stop thinking about it. Unlike Queenie and Moses, I happen to adore this particular piece of depressing literary fiction from Newfoundland. It’s probably about 50 weeks too early to be saying this, but I know this is going to be one of my top books of 2015.
Sweetland was released in the U.S. yesterday. It was published by Liveright, and imprint of W. W. Norton & Company.