Sweetland by Michael Crummey

Ever since I heard that a new book was coming out by Michael Crummey, I have been excited about it. I have been known to gush about him before; here and here; and he also made this list.

19347307With Sweetland, Crummey has done it again. He has written a story about an old man who doesn’t want to leave his harsh but beloved island, and he has made it a captivating and satisfying read.

The book tells the story of 69-year-old Moses Sweetland who has lived most of his life on an island off the southwest coast of Newfoundland. When the government offers the community a package to re-locate to the mainland, Sweetland digs in his heels. Everyone else on the island eventually decide to take the package, and tensions are running high as they try to convince Sweetland to join them.

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.

I can’t talk about this book without mentioning Sweetland‘s cast of characters. The people in this story are vibrant, unique, and full of heart. Sweetland’s great nephew, Jesse, loves to join his uncle as he goes trapping and fishing, but there is something about the boy that is hard to figure out; Duke owns the barbershop, but has never cut anyone’s hair; Wince Pilgrim has been blind his entire life; Queenie who hasn’t left her house in forty years; the Reverand who left and came back again; and the Priddle boys who keep coming back to stir up trouble.

The dead in this story hold just as much weight as the living. Sweetland’s long-dead brother Hollis is Jesse’s best friend; Ruthie, Sweetland’s sister, who “thought the sun shone out of his arse” when she was a girl; Sara Loveless, whose cow her brother is trying to take care of for her; and Effie Priddle who died young during childbirth.

Then there is Sweetland himself. Cantankerous, elusive, stubborn, independent, big-hearted old fool. At the end of each chapter, there is an extra segment that takes us back to Sweetlands’ life when he was younger. By the end of the book, we have a good impression of his life, his mistakes, his regrets, and his connection to the land and the people who belong to it.

The whole place was going under, and almost everyone it mattered to was already in the ground.

Something I found both amusing and interesting were the many references made throughout the book about technology and the internet. The idea of the internet feels out of place on the island; a contrast to the wildness and remoteness. It is easy, while reading the book, to forget that it is 2012 instead of 1912.

The web was like the ocean, Sweetland thought, there was no telling what lived in the murkiest depths. He allowed it might be possible, if a body knew where and how to look, that everything he’d known in his life and since forgotten could be found drifting down there, in grainy two-minute clips.

An infinite library of information and none of it any practical use to them. A window they could peer through to watch the modern world unfold in myriad variations, while only the smallest, strangest fragments washed ashore on the island.

The second half of the book is man against the elements. Will Sweetland regret his decision to stay behind, or was it the only choice he could have made? One thing is for sure, as his mother used to say, “If you scald your arse, you got to learn to sit on your blisters”.

He looked up at the hills surrounding the cove, sunlight making them ring with meltwater. He’d always loved that sound, waited for it each spring. Hearing it made him certain of the place he came from. He’d always felt like it was more than enough to wake up here, to look out on these hills. As if he’d long ago been measured and made to the island’s exact specifications.

This is a story about the bonds we form with family, community, and land. Which has a stronger pull on us? Sweetland took a chance on the bonds he had with the land and the people already buried within it.  What kind of toll might you pay living alone on an isolated island for months with your memories and grief to keep you company?

Michael Crummey’s storytelling and writing are moving and masterful. His descriptions of Newfoundland and it’s people feel beautiful and authentic. And, the ending to this tale is emotional and powerful. I would like to know what you think of it. Highly recommended.

*This book was given to me from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

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27 thoughts on “Sweetland by Michael Crummey

    • Naomi says:

      It’s good to hear that you’ve seen the book around. I feel like I’ve only seen it because I was looking for it intentionally. When you’re in the mood for a book set in Newfoundland, this one is perfect!

  1. kmn04books says:

    What a beautifully-written review. I found that I struggled with this book at times; I think it’s because there were so many unfamiliar elements and terms that made it hard for me to read the book effortlessly. That (minor) frustration ultimately affected my enjoyment of the novel, but I will definitely be redirecting readers to this review to get a different perspective from mine. Your review has made me appreciate the book so much more. 🙂

    • Naomi says:

      Thanks for the kind words, Karen! Maybe I just went into the book knowing what to expect from Michael Crummey, and knowing that it would be very ‘Newfoundland-y’. It’s nice to hear my review had a positive effect on your appreciation of the book. 🙂 Looking forward to reading your perspective!

  2. Fictionquest says:

    I love Michael Crummey’s work… am looking forward to reading his latest. Your post has lead me to push Sweetland closer to the top of the night table inventory.

  3. Cecilia says:

    This sounds good! And it reminds me a bit of my father 😉 Eventually we want our parents to move near us but I am not sure if he will budge…maybe reading this will also give me some insights into my own family life.

    • Naomi says:

      Ha! I think a lot of older people might have this problem. I can’t really blame them. Someday I will probably feel the same way. I already do when it comes to leaving Nova Scotia. However, I am still willing to move around within the province. 🙂

  4. Carole Besharah says:

    Fantastic review. Sweetland is the best CanLit book I have read in 2014 (thus far)… it will surely be a Giller Prize contender. Crummey’s language, memorable characters –outstanding. You did the book justice. Cheers!

    P.S. This was my first Michael Crummey read. Do you think it is his best? I hear that Galore is just as good.

    • Naomi says:

      Yes, if you liked this one, read Galore next! But, I liked all of his books. They are all different. The Wreckage is sad, though, just to warn you. Thanks for the kind words!

    • Naomi says:

      Thanks, Carolyn! I know- what is it about islands and isolation? Is it fascinating because I wish I was there, or because I am glad that I’m not?

  5. lauratfrey says:

    Oo I just got this on NetGalley… I had his book River Thieves sitting on my shelves for years and finally got rid of it at a book swap a while ago, THEN I started hearing about the guy and was like “big mistake.”

    • Naomi says:

      River Thieves was good, too! Very different, though. And, if I was recommending, I would suggest either Sweetland or Galore first. I hope you like it!

      I have copies of all his books now, collected over the last few years from used book stores. I found some good books this summer, too. If I can find extra time, I’m hoping to write about it!

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