The Shipping News

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The Shipping NewsThe Shipping News by Annie Proulx
Published: 1993

The first 30 pages of this book are bloody depressing. The protagonist, Quoyle, has a miserable childhood, his parents kill themselves, he marries a horrible woman who openly cheats on him, and then his wife eventually leaves him and sells their two young daughters to sex traffickers (Happy Mother’s Day, by the way). This is the introduction to the book. The story then follows him as he leaves New York and returns to his father’s hometown in Newfoundland to begin a new life with his daughters and aunt. While the beginning is incredible important, since this is about a man trying to move on from rock bottom, I’m thankful the rest of the novel is fairly calm. I’m not sure I’d want to trudge through 300 more pages of that.

The most interesting aspect of this was the writing style. It’s very different from anything I’ve come across. The narration is choppy and fragmented, in a way that’s probably closer to how we really think, or at least how Quoyle might think. He’s a local news journalist, and the narration feels like how I imagine his notebook might read.

Three or four days later he was still thinking about seal flipper pie. Remembered the two raw eggs Petal gave him. That he invested with pathetic meaning.

‘Petal,’ said Quoyle to Wavey, ‘hated to cook. Hardly ever did.’ Thought of the times he had fixed dinner for her, set put his stupid candles, folded the napkins as though they were important, waited and finally ate alone, the radio on for company. And later dined with the children, shoveling in canned spaghetti, scraping baby food off small chins.

‘Once she gave me two eggs. Raw eggs for a present.’ He had made an omelet of them, hand-fed her as though she were a nestling bird. And saved the shells in a paper cup on top of the kitchen cabinet. Where they still must be.

At first the style bothered me. For a good chunk of the novel I thought Quoyle might be a bit slow, due to a combination of the simple language and his actions at the beginning of the book. Once I got used to the style of writing, I actually really enjoyed it. It’s jarring at first but becomes almost soothing to read.

The story meanders and is somewhat directionless. Usually characters keep you interested through their goals and the actions they take to achieve them, but Quoyle’s main goal was basically to tread water. I’ve heard the story described as a portrait of the way of life in that area of Newfoundland, and I think that’s a good way to look at it, but at times it was leaning towards being a still life.

The names in this are also worth mentioning. They are insane. Some of these names include: Quoyle, his daughters Bunny and Sunshine, Nutbeem, Petal Bear, Tert Card, Mooseknuckle Houseboat, Wavey Prowse, Beety Buggit, and Diddy Shovel. I made up only one of those names. It reads like a character list for a fairy tale.

I read this mainly because it was recommended to me by a friend, but the fact that it takes place in Canada and won the 1993 Pulitzer Prize sweetened the deal. It’s set in a remote area of Newfoundland, which is interesting to read about. I feel somewhat connected, as a Canadian, but it’s also extremely foreign to me. My life on the west coast was quite different.

In the end I enjoyed this, but at times I had to push myself to keep reading. I haven’t decided if I’ll look into her other novels yet.

3 thoughts on “The Shipping News

  1. Geoff W.

    I might have to read this, it sounds really different from the film version. I don’t remember the film all that well, but I definitely don’t remember that opening! I’ve always wanted to read Proulx though.

    Reply
    1. Rob Post author

      I still haven’t watched the film version, but it’s in my Netflix queue. Seems hard to go wrong with Kevin Spacey and Judi Dench! I was very interested to see how they’d open the film actually.

      Reply
      1. Geoff W.

        Oh it was excellently done from what I remember! I just don’t remember that intense of an opening, but thinking about it I might now have it confused with another film.

        Reply

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