Quoyle — pathetic, depressed, and loyal to a fault — lives in the United States and quietly suffers the indignities of being married to Petal, an openly promiscuous woman with no regard for anyone but herself. He is basically a single father, caring for their two bratty daughters whenever Petal goes gallivanting off with her latest lover.
The book has its share of over-the-top episodes, and Petal meets an untimely death early on that serves as the catalyst for the rest of the book. He loses his job at the newspaper and his father also dies around this time; with nothing left to hold on to, Quoyle is left floundering in his grief. Along comes Aunt Agnis, his father’s sister, and convinces him to move with her to their ancestral home in Newfoundland.
The house hasn’t been lived in for ages and is crumbling from disuse. Quoyle has a job at The Gammy Bird, the local paper, but has no easy way of getting to work without a boat. Even if he does get a boat, he can’t swim. It’s freezing. It’s windy. It will be a while before their house is livable. Have they made a huge mistake?
Enter the cast of eccentric locals. The Gammy Bird may be a newspaper, but the owner/editor caters to his consumers: “sex crimes and car wrecks” are the main focus, and if there is no terrible car wreck to feature — it’s Quoyle’s duty to go out and photograph the wrecks — they have a file of photos of past wrecks to use for the week. His other duty is to report on the shipping news, a boring chronology of ships coming and going from the harbor. His coworkers are a random bunch of old men who drive each other insane.
The book develops slowly, but there’s not much going on. Life is slow and much of the drama is internal. Aunt Agnis, so straightforward and almost brusque towards others, is one such person with a vivid backstory that she keeps tightly guarded; I wish there had been more of her in the book. As with any small town, secrets are hard to keep; sometimes gossip is all people have to do.
I was a little apprehensive in the beginning because it felt very woman-is-the-downfall-of-man with Petal and the girls. But once it opens up into the actual story, the book redeems itself. People who need a lot of action in their plots probably won’t like this book, but I found myself really getting into it (then again, I think I just really have a thing for Newfoundland).
The Shipping News was originally published by Scribner in 1993; I listened to the audiobook version. The book won the Pulitzer in 1994.