In Short presents a 300-word and spoiler-free summary, intended to have a broad appeal; In Detail focuses on one aspect of the book which I found remarkable, which might interest those who have already read the book or those with an interest in the mechanics of writing; In Other Words contains links to thoughts on the book by other Shadow Jury members.
Across the water, sounds can amplify, or sometimes disperse. In Emma Hooper’s Our Homesick Songs, some of the Newfoundland community members are ghost-like and shadowy while others are rooted and solid.
Some characters’ contributions to the narrative are vibrant melodies and others collect in a soft chorus. Families are simultaneously united and fragmented, base notes held beneath plotty, melodic moments.
Both man-made music (an accordion takes centre stage, voices raised in song are prominent) and natural music (the wind, the water, and the noises created by the creatures therein) play a vital role in the story.
This stands in contrast to the questions of permanence which are at the heart of the story, questions about what (and whom) we can count on, about the gap between what we hold near and what we long for: what is fleeting and what remains.
Time ebbs and flows, too, like the tide; some years crash hard and settle into detailed and sensory-soaked scenes, while others slip through your grip. “Everyone believed, everyone knew, that mermaids were the sea-dead, singing their love back to you. If it wasn’t too loud with rain or waves, you could hear them in the wind, most nights.”
Her use of language – word choice and syntax – works to create a sense of suspension. There is an uncertainty to many of these characters’ existences (unnamed forces – climate change and unregulated hauls and borders – having drained the waters of the fish that once supported the economy – and overt threats).
There is a restlessness to their realities as they search for new ways of being. And elements which are more commonly regimented and orchestrated are dynamic and shifting here. Even, for instance, the community library, which is on a boat and where borrowers use a notebook to log their own loans and returns.
Some readers will feel sodden, others pleasantly immersed: whether whistling or humming a dirge, you will likely find yourself haunted by a lyric at the end of Emma Hooper’s Our Homesick Songs.
The musical elements, whether light lyrics or resounding base chords are ephemeral, but together they swell into more of a feeling than a structure, so that the stories herein are characterized by a quiet yearning. There is talk of happiness, but a tone of mourning hangs beneath the lighter notes.*
The novel’s musicality is not only important in the theme – what is ephemeral and what lasts – but for creating the mood and atmosphere. Songs are taught, shared, practiced, performed (alone and together); they are memorized, yes, but, more than that, they are absorbed. There is a rhythm to the prose which is remarkable, quietly seductive.
“And sometimes the water was blue, more blue than sky, and sometimes it was dark and green and thick, and sometimes it was hardly any colour, changing and moving and pushing and pulling like breath.”
Repetition is key (that’s not a musical joke!) and scenes which appear similar (between members of a pair of characters or between two pairs) are poised to act like echoes. (If the first round doesn’t resonate with a reader, this will feel more like a jingle than a symphony.)
Fingers move across keys, buttons and strings. Melodies cascade over memories and hearts. This is both something unique and personal and also something communal and cultural. The means of creating it can, however, be sacrificed – deliberately – or lost – tragically or quietly (sometimes unnoticed). “Without clocks or people to pace it out, the darkness spread out and out like the sea, like she could sink into it, away.”
In other words
Links to reviews from the other Giller Prize 2018 shadow jury members: Alison, Kim and Naomi (links live when available).
This is one of the twelve books chosen for the longlist for the 2018 Giller Prize, which was announced on September 17, 2018 and selected by the 2018 jury which includes Kamal Al-Solaylee, Maxine Bailey, John Freeman, Philip Hensher and Heather O’Neill.
On October 1st, five other books were advanced to the shortlist and one of those will be chosen to win the prize on November 19th. This year I am reading with the shadow jury, with Alison and Kim and Naomi, who have committed to reading this shortlist in its entirety.