In the generation before my own, Newfoundland became a province in the nation currently called Canada.

It’s about 3,000 km away from me, but it feels like a world apart. For me, as a reader, Michael Crummey’s The Innocents (2019) makes it seem both farther away and closer.

Historical Note: It was settled about 9,000 years ago, the homeland of several indigenous groups (whose descendants – other than the Beothuk, extinct from 1829 – still inhabit these lands today) but French and English colonial forces were in conflict over it for centuries before English government – eventually, Canadian government – seized control and Newfoundland and Labrador become a province in 1949. (The colonies took some indigenous people back with them as souvenirs: efforts to repatriate their remains are still underway.)

The language makes it seem farther away, like another nation.

Take, for instance, a passage like this, sprinkled with dialect which reminds readers of the Irish/Scottish/English settlements which took root:

“In August Ada swept the beach clean, scraping mollyfodge from the rocks on the bawn to make an untainted platform for laying out the cod that had been sitting weeks in salt bulk.”

But the story, in particular the relationship between Ada and her brother, Evered, the universal struggles they face (survival – how much more basic does it get – and a desire to connect), makes it seem closer. As does the occasional glimpse of humour in what is a chronicle of an often-difficult and occasionally tragic life.

“You was lost in the dawnies again,” she said. “What was it you was dreaming about?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “Some old foolishness.”
“You’re an awful liar, Brother.”
He shrugged. “It idn’t for lack of practice,” he said.

‘Mollyfodge’, ‘bawn’, and ‘dawnies’: that might put you back on your heels. But Evered’s quiet joke, and the talk of dreams, the everyday work (be it sweeping or fishing): in essence, it’s everyday life.

Crummey is a writer I’ve been following for years. Since I learned he was a winner of the Bronwen Wallace Award for young writers (she was one of my first MustReadEverything authors).

His writing about Newfoundland is accomplished and resonant, but when he talks about storytelling, that’s when he wins my reader’s heart. And my favourite book of his (so far) is all about storytelling: Galore.

There is a lot to admire in The Innocents. And it gripped me from its opening pages. But the story felt uncomfortably intimate from the start. Not in the way that you might guess if you’ve read the story (that part – which I won’t identify as it’s a spoiler – didn’t trouble me). But in the same way that one of these characters views a scene which cannot be forgotten, I could not set aside some of the sadnesses herein. They surged beneath the remainder of the narrative. As sad things do.

The language is beautiful. One also cannot forget that Crummey is a poet, so we have snippets like this to enjoy: a man who reads “periodically from the black book in his hands, his voice like a spadeful of gravel against wood”.

The setting is mesmerizing: “The cove was the heart and sum of all creation in their eyes and they were alone there with the little knowledge of the world passed on haphazard and gleaned by chance.” (Here, too, you can glimpse the genesis of the title.)

And there is a balance to the telling, so although there is starvation, there is also feasting: “Once a week Ada fried a breakfast of toutons as a treat and she and Evered slathered the doughy cakes with molasses, licking their plates clean when they were done, each smiling to see the other do the same.”

But the loneliness.

It’s unshakeable: “They had all their lives been the one thing the other looked to first and last, the one article needed to feel complete whatever else was taken from them or mislaid in the dark. But each in their own way was beginning to doubt their pairing was requisite to what they might want from life.”

Like Carol Birch’s Jamrach’s Menagerie (2011), Cherie Dimaline’s The Marrow Thieves (2017) and James Hanniham’s Delicious Foods (2015), Michael Crummey’s The Innocents takes a survival narrative and forces a hard look at the ties that bind and support and choke. It’s a hard story to swallow, all the more so because it’s rooted in hard truths.

SHADOW GILLER 2019: You can also follow the Shadow Giller Jury’s progress at Kevin from Canada’s site and read Naomi’s reviews at Consumed by Ink. Our reading schedule for this year’s shortlist is here, if you’d like to mark a particular title on your own calendar.