The theme of this trenchant novel is struggle for survival in an environment stripped by commercial fisheries and deadly gill nets, and an intimate search for peace in a tormented soul set against the rugged background of the Newfoundland coast, where the cycle of life revolves, humans clinging for purchase on an ocean of chance.
For Sylvanus Now, this is the perfect place, lacking only a wife, the object of his desire the beautiful, dissatisfied Adelaide. Adelaide is trapped in a cycle of poverty, surrounded by squalling siblings. Once education is denied her, the future promises only back-breaking, soul-stifling labor, her beauty sure to fray under the harsh demands of the fishing life. Faced with rapidly diminishing options, when Sylvanus shows up at her door, Adelaide knows a moment of joy, taking in his handsome face and elegant suit.
Adelaide’s brief euphoria is too soon diluted by the reality of her suitor’s occupation, betrayed by the rubber boots and bowed legs of the fisherman. Sylvanus asks Adelaide to go with him to Cooney Arm, his home: “Cooney Arm with its handful of blood relatives, the scattered sheep and the odd rhubarb patch was never a place she cared to visit.” Leaving her fecund mother’s jumble of screaming babies behind, Adelaide metaphorically shuts the door on her present and walks into the future with Sylvanus.
Even as a child, Adelaide is a solitary soul, putting all her faith in God’s protection. Her husband’s love is an insufficient shield from her particular burdens; she will be sorely tested in this union. As her married life unfolds, this seemingly impervious young woman is thrust into a struggle that will test her inner resources beyond her expectations.
Adelaide faces her demons surrounded by the wild beauty of the coast, where nature rules the bounty or lack of her life: “She pasted life around her as if it were wallpaper, but then had scrambled into hiding after it started crimping and peeling and falling in strips around her.” Both Sylvanus and Adelaide become intimate with the fear that takes up residence in their hearts, clinging to each other in silent desperation.
This errant coastline seems centuries removed from progress in the 1950s, small fishing fleets gradually replaced by the massive ships whose nets cull the ocean for quarry, delivering their catch to the canneries for immediate processing. Seduced by government assurances, local fishermen are eager to cast aside daily drudgery, investing in liners to harvest their fish, their wives working in the factories for a regular paycheck and a few well-deserved modern conveniences.
Couched in the idiomatic speech of the Newfoundland coast, the author mines local customs, the changing tides of the fishing industry, Sylvanus’ unwavering devotion, and the incredible spirit of a woman coming to terms with destiny. Morrissey catapults her characters into complex relationships as a centuries-old way of life crumbles before the inevitable onslaught of progress, trapped by economic limitations and diminishing dreams. These heroic protagonists find salvation in the uncharted territory of flawed humanity, loss and forgiveness.