Michael Winter’s Minister Without Portfolio (2013)

Readers familiar with Michael Winter’s fiction will immediately recognize the contrast between stark prose and emotional intensity; in the gap between, the reader resides.

For it’s not as though Henry Hayward does not feel, but it’s as though he has raised a hand to protect himself from the heat of the blaze; the reader is on the other side with him, aware but shielded.

And this is understandable because events in Henry’s past, and particularly recent events, are overwhelming; they require some distance.

One might even accuse him of dwelling on the past, like Gabriel English, who is at the heart of Michael Winter’s first publication, One Last Good Look, and first novel, This All Happened.

“You sure are into remembering,” Gabe is told. And not just because he is constantly reminded. “You just remember for the sake of remembering.”

And, at first, perhaps, Henry does remember for the sake of remembering, too. He is struggling with a break-up (shades here of Gabriel, post-Lydia), and he does not seem able to recover; he literally moves on, removes himself from the situation, as a means of coping.

But Henry does take a step away from the past with this action. Ironically, yet deliberately, his decision to leave is a movement towards greater chaos. He takes work overseas, in Afghanistan: not military work, but rooted in the conflict nonetheless.

Minister without Portfolio Winter

Hamish Hamilton – Penguin, 2013

And Minister Without Portfolio is a story of conflict, but not the sort one expects when one hears about a character going to work in Afghanistan, but that which ensues, when Henry returns to a life-more-ordinary.

While there, a countryman observes that Henry is their group’s minister without portfolio.

At the time, the idea of being a man not “committed to anything” but with “a hand  in everything” felt as much an honour as a judgement. “They were living a life.”

But just a few chapters later, Henry is caught in a sequence of events which dramatically alters his perspective; he views his nomination as a disparaging act, and he desperately works to shake it off.

Henry carries his experiences of violence and destruction back to Newfoundland, where he lives and re-lives them, in familiar and strange ways.

At first, he was puzzled by his countryman’s observation that a particular section of the landscape in Afghanistan reminded the man of Newfoundland; but Henry, too, begins to notice as many similarities between the lands as differences, experiences trauma even in the safe zones.

“The jeep descended into the green and the humidity rose like a soft moist brush against the face. There were flowers here and an oasis of green that the mind encouraged to creep over the land, to perhaps – in some wild biology – be released across the homeland of the soul. We’re here to assist, Henry thought. He could not articulate the idea, but he felt a compulsion to counter the devastation he had been witnessing on the ground.”

There are only a few chapters in the novel which recount the events of the past which haunt Henry: the smaller and larger tragedies that he returns to (and retreats from) repeatedly.

The bulk of Minister Without Portfolio is preoccupied by the efforts that Henry makes to “counter the devastation”.

This is not clear initially, which recalls another observation that Gabe makes in This All Happened: “A novel should be told by the voice of an authority, yet a voice that is still discovering the meaning of what the story is. There should be wonder.”

Beneath the brightly coloured dust jacket of the novel, is a startlingly orange cover. This is what lies beneath. There is wonder here.

There is also a quote, etched into the bookcover, which readers can trace with their fingertips: “He spoke of Henry as if he were an old shed built with found wood. Which he was. Which we all are.”

[As an aside: what a lovely touch. For those readers who like to strip and redress their books, to discover a clue beneath the surface is pure pleasure.]

And where is the wonder in an old shed build with found wood; that is what Henry is searching for throughout his journey and upon his return.

“History is the constant upheaval of peregrination. Henry’s family hadn’t stayed put for more than a generation.”

He battles his inherent rootlessness and works towards a commitment that is quietly wondrous, literally and metaphorically rebuilding.

“We’re looking forward, Baxter said, to seeing some lights on in this house.
[…]
Well, Baxter said, if you need anything we’re across the road, and he pointed out the window as if Henry would not know the direction. He was off then. He crossed the road back to his snug little home that had in it a wife who was at that moment moving from room to room turning on more lights.
Henry made a little sliced deli sandwich and put the lantern with its throaty glow on the table so he would have something to look forward to on his walk home.”

(There is only a hint of it here, but Michael Winter’s dialogue is realistic and solid, simultaneously building character and propelling plot; it makes quotation marks seem excessive.)

The community is sketched with bold strokes; in these brief scenes, Michael Winter invites the reader to settle closer, draw near, in a way that Henry (and not Gabe either) cannot.

They are not uncomplicated regions, but there is a sense of closeness all-the-same. There are, at least, lights to view from the darkness beyond.

“They had to be careful with their swearing and with talk of horny dogs and usurping house ownership for this road out to the lighthouse was a Catholic road with many gravestones dating back to the 1700s, graves that were groomed and clipped out and lilac bushes trimmed back once a year by relatives who now lived in other parts of the word, but the old-timers who still live on the road did not like curse words and they eschewed vulgarity and what was considered vulgar was very mild indeed.”

Henry is a man at arm’s length, a man uncomfortable with his position. And this does make it difficult to get close to his character. But he has no confidante and cannot reach beyond his struggle to the readers in the room.

His hand made a wider arc to find the chain but there was nothing at the end of his hand. He understood his sense of the world was drifting away. He was not in a house now but some larger place, some fathomless atmosphere that was not of any time or location. He hardly felt the floor. He panicked and was losing even his sense of self and then he felt a tickle brush his wrist and he pulled and the light arrived all around him – the room.

This is, as that hidden quote declares, just as we all are. In Afghanistan, in Newfoundland, in the reader’s chair: each of us is requiring assistance, countering devastation, finding wood, building a portfolio, looking for the light in a room.

IFOASmallBadgeHave you read Michael Winter’s fiction? Have you read other books on this year’s Giller longlist?

Michael Winter will be appearing at the 34th International Festival of Authors in Toronto. 

He is one of five authors reading on Saturday, November 2 at 1pm. 

This post is part of the 2013 IFOA Celebration. 

2014-05-13T14:37:40+00:00

2 Comments

  1. Sandra October 28, 2013 at 5:02 pm - Reply

    I really liked this book, particularly the voice and I became very attached to Henry and concerned about how things were going to turn out for him. I have read one other Michael Winter title and responded much the same way so will definitely read his others. The Giller longlist has been a rich source for me this year.

    • Buried In Print October 30, 2013 at 10:35 am - Reply

      Me too: it’s interesting that, although there isn’t a lot of flesh to the story, we can get attached and want a good outcome for him, even with little more than bare bones to convince us as readers. I’m keen to read Donna Whalen: that will be next on my MW list, I think.

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