The Shipping News – a story of an anonymous man

Three years ago, when I picked up The Shipping News, the book revealed itself as the pleasing sort of surprise which literature sometimes presents you. Although I had already seen and enjoyed the film based on the book, it, and its author, E. Annie Proulx were unknown to me, as was the fact that Proulx was awarded the Pulitzer prize for it. Nevertheless, much like the film, this book proved a real page-turner.

The book’s protagonist is Quoyle, a destitute and insecure man. Throughout his life, he has been ignored, oppressed and stepped on by his family, in particular his father. Quoyle’s tough upbringing served only to rob him of all self esteem, effectively isolating him as an adult. Friendless, and stuck in a miserable, dead-end job, Quoyle’s life goes on as a grey existence, year after year.

Things appear to change for Quoyle when he meets Petal; a woman he worships from the word go. She notices him, and they soon marry and have two daughters, Bunny and Sunshine. Bliss passes quickly, though, as Petal soon proves to be little more than a skank and a slag. Her world is a self-centred and promiscuous one, which even her kids cannot distract her attention from. Still, Quoyle struggles to distance himself from his wife, as she represents his only fling with happiness.

Then, two things happen which serve to renew Quoyle’s life in a way he had never dreamed of. First, Petal is killed in a car accident whilst on a road trip with a lover. Then, his parents commit suicide, and his hitherto unknown aunt Agnis drops by his house.

This is where the story really takes off. Agnis tells Quoyle of Newfoundland, the Canadian island province which Quoyle’s father – Agnis’s brother – left when he was young. Quoyle agrees to take his two daughters along and follow Agnis back ‘home’, to their forefathers’ now derelict, windswept house at Quoyle’s Point. He gets a job writing the shipping news for local newspaper The Gammy Bird and finds his place in the community, meeting friends and even hits it off with a single mum in the village. He also learns some new and troublesome stuff about his forefathers…

For me, the book’s essence is in the immortal subjects of personal growth, family, love and identity. What sets it apart is the rich, engaging tone of Proulx’s writing, the fabulously colourful characters and the unique setting. Newfoundland has a certain mystique to most outsiders, and the island’s portrayal in this book was a major part of my reading experience (allow me to mention here that my boyfriend and I travelled to Newfoundland on the back of this book and film). On the one hand, the island is rugged, cold, windy and a long way from anywhere – on the other, it has a beauty and a vibrancy quite unlike other places. Reading the book, you almost feel like you’re there.

Of course, the characters are the heartbeat of the book, and Proulx has filled them with humour and depth. Her descriptions of Quoyle’s newspaper colleagues are worth the price of the book on their own, in particular, the enigmatic Billy Pretty caught my attention, although all the main characters in this book have some stories to tell (and some they’d rather keep to themselves!). Seen through the eyes of awe-struck Quoyle, of course, the characters seem even more fascinating. Speaking of Quoyle, Proulx made a good choice never to reveal his first name. That way, his lack of personal identity is underlined and the new and exciting surroundings are amplified. To Newfoundlanders, of course, he is always mainly a Quoyle.
If you don’t have time to read the book, the film is also worth watching. It was directed by Lasse Hallström, a director who has a brilliant track record of making films of this kind. The magic realism from the book has been augmented as ghosts from the past and the rebirth of men become strong symbols of family roots and new opportunity. In addition the film is peppered with a brilliant and well-picked selection of actors, such as Kevin Spacey, Judi Dench, Julianne Moore, Cate Blanchett, Rhys Ifans, Pete Postlethwaite and, of course, Newfoundland’s own Gordon Pinsent. Enjoy!

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Om Jennukka
Medieviter med hovedfokus på film. Interessert i film, musikk og litteratur, og det er det jeg i hovedsak kommer til å skrive om her. Det vil være en blanding av nytt og gammelt, en del jeg liker og enkelte ting som jeg kanskje ikke syns er så bra.

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