My rating: 9/10.
An intense read. Absolutely impossible to put down.
February is a story about grief and memory and love and people coping with heartbreakingly dire situations the best way they can, which means not always particularly happily or successfully. The novel ends with optimism, but I could not call it happy. It is a keenly observant, uncomfortably bleak, very believable portrait of a woman and her family and their reaction to the brutally unexpected loss of their son, husband and father.
Lisa Moore has written, all clichés aside, a powerful book. Stark, often deeply uncomfortable, occasionally humorous, never maudlin, and, I suspect, one that will be quite unforgettable.
The novel is based on a true Canadian tragedy. On Valentine’s night in 1982, out on the Atlantic Ocean off Newfoundland, the oil drilling rig Ocean Ranger capsized and sank during a violent storm. All eighty-four men on board the rig died in the frigid waters, some apparently within hailing distance of a vessel which was unable to rescue them. The families of the dead learned of the disaster from news accounts on the radio; the oil company made no attempt to notify them.
Helen O’Mara loses her husband Cal that night. She has three young children and is pregnant with a fourth. Life for all of them becomes indelibly marked by their loss in ways both immediate and not always obvious until many years later.
The novel ranges from 2009 all the way back to the 1970s, when Helen and Cal were first married, in a series of memories, incidents, anecdotes, and flashbacks. A second storyline develops along with Helen’s, that of her now-adult son John, who has suddenly found out that he has fathered a child during a casual romantic encounter. As he attempts to come to grips with an adequate response to that situation, his story and that of his mother’s form a two-part composition of major and minor key, mingling and contrasting and bringing different incidents into sharp focus.
I thought this approach worked very well. A few reviewers have noted their irritation at John’s weakness as a character; I found him believable, though not at all likeable. Helen herself comes so vividly to life and we are taken so intimately into her thoughts, that everyone else pales just a bit in comparison. For that matter, I did not particularly like her, or most of the other characters, for that matter; many of their lifestyles are not at all in sympathy with my own, and I frequently caught myself getting all judgemental about some of their choices, but I will say that they all felt true and alive there on the page.
I’m cutting this review short right here, as other duties call, and I want to get it posted prior to this week’s Canada Reads debates on CBC Radio.
Would I recommend this book to “everybody”? No, definitely not.
It is an uncomfortable thing, and I’d want the reader to go in with expectations on high alert. In particular, women with husbands engaged in dangerous lines of work, heads up. This is a book you very likely should read, because it speaks bluntly to the situation and spotlights our every nightmare. The good thing about this is because it is fiction, it allows us to analyze the characters’ emotions and responses in relation to their fabricated stories, rather than agonize too deeply over what we would feel like if it were us instead.
Perhaps because it is one of the most contemporary and personally accessible of the five Canada Reads choices, I felt it was much the strongest. Every book on the list has its unique qualities, but for sheer emotional punch, this one wins hands down.
My ranking as of this evening:
- February by Lisa Moore
- Indian Horse by Richard Wagamese
- Away by Jane Urquhart (Actually, I’m undecided on how to place this one and Indian Horse. They’re running neck and neck, each with different strengths and types of appeal.)
- Two Solitudes by Hugh MacLennan
- The Age of Hope by David Bergen
I am going to work on completing Two Solitudes tonight and tomorrow, so a response to that one may be forthcoming in the next day or two as well, but no promises.
This is the first time I’ve attempted to read the Canada Reads contenders, and I must say that I have been introduced to novels I would not otherwise have chosen for myself. February I would likely have avoided because of the tragic storyline, The Age of Hope for its mediocre description as a novel of a “woman’s awakening”, and Indian Horse for its declared focus on hockey.
I’m glad I read them all. It will be interesting to see how they all fare in a “contest” situation. They are all quite different, though their universal bleakness is a point in common. So terribly sincere …