It begins in fog. With Matthew Sweetland hearing voices “so indistinct he thought they might be imaginary”.
This scene from the past alerts readers that they should be concerned with the line between the real and the invented, and even more to the point, with how Sweetland views these states.
For readers will be in the company of this man throughout this novel, a companionship which is not always comfortable but, nonetheless, essential and compelling.
Matthew Sweetland is a lonely man. A man isolated long before the question of whether he will remain, a solitary figure, on the island for which he has been named, which the government has deemed no longer habitable.
“Sweetland sat at the table longer than usual. Dealt himself a hand of solitaire and drank a bare-legged cup of tea. The snow covered the roofs of buildings and the packed earth along the paths and showed no sign of letting up.”
But although he spends most of his time alone, there are key relationships that he establishes (sometimes seemingly against his better judgement) which make the melancholy aspects of this story easier to bear, not only for him, but for readers as well.
For Matthew Sweetland does not exactly choose to be alone; he seems to insist that that is what he deserves and, yet, he is constantly reaching for connection, like the “kind of conversation he was having with the [fox, whom] he came to think of …as company”. (This sentence is heavily edited to avoid spoilers.)
He has come to view his separate-ness is not only an integral part of his identity, but almost a desirable one. “He found himself enjoying it almost, to be the one knot they couldn’t untangle. Holding on like grim death and halfways invigorated by the effort. Twisted, Ruthie used to say of him, and Sweetland couldn’t argue her assessment. Or change his way in the world.”
But ‘almost’ is the key there, for this sense of longing haunts the story, and the relationships which have been and remain important to this man take on a peculiar and haunting importance, particularly when they are threatened or falter.
There is a sense of harsh and worn endurance, not only in the characters but in the environment too, which permeates every aspect of life on the island (even the metaphors, which are beautiful and used sparingly enough to enchant readers).
“The old house creaked in each gust, the wind throwing buckets of rain against the windows. One of the last hockey games of the season grinding on in the living room, the noise of the crowd rising and falling like a weather of its own.”
But Matthew Sweetland is growing older, and the melancholy is sometimes overwhelming. “A life was no goddamn thing in the end, he thought. Bits and pieces of make-believe cobbled together to look halfways human, like some stick-and-rag doll meant to scare crows out of the garden. No goddamn thing at all.”
Sweetland is a piece of make-believe, but not one cobbled together, rather, one skillfully assembled and honed. Ultimately it poses many of the same questions that surface in the author’s poetry, particularly the concern with what kind of thing a life is, in the end, when all accounts are measured. (His collection Under the Keel is a beautiful meditation on this sort of measuring.)
The meaning rests in our relationships and, as such, the quality of the relationship between reader and Matthew Sweetland will determine the degree of attachment that the reader feels to this novel.
It is a story with a weather of its own, and it chills more often than it warms, but it inspires a peculiar kind of devotion.
It ends, as it began, in fog. And although that might not seem all that promising, it is, somehow, a perfect fit for this story.
For those readers new to Michael Crummey’s fiction, Galore would be a wondrous introduction, but readers familiar with his work will find the light in Sweetland through the fog.