Malagash by Joey Comeau

Malagash is a gem of a book. And I can’t think of anyone I wouldn’t recommend it to.

The title of the book refers to the community where the story is set. Malagash is located along the north shore of Nova Scotia, and is one of those places you can easily pass through without knowing you are there.

I thought Malagash would be a small town, but it is not even that. One long road, a twisting red paved loop around the north shore of Nova Scotia. There’s a tractor sitting in a field. A dirt bike leaning up against a shed. We pass a pen of llamas, who look bored as hell. The Atlantic ocean itself comes right up to drive along beside us. Then it slips away.

But this book is not really about the place. This story could have taken place anywhere.

Narrated by young Sunday, she tells us how her family came home to Malagash so her father could live out his final days where he had been born and raised. Her father is now in hospital while the rest of the family (her mother, herself, and her younger brother Simon) stay with their grandmother.

The beauty of this book comes through in the interactions between the family members; their visits to the hospital to see their father, as well as the quieter, more ordinary times they share back at the house.

“Why do you take the phone off the hook every day?” Simon asks her. He’s smearing too much margarine on his slice of brown bread.

“Because there is nothing in the world more important than having dinner with my grandchildren,” my grandmother says.

She shakes pepper and salt onto her food. She takes a butter knife and puts too much margarine on her brown bread, just like Simon does, and then looks up to smile at us.

“And because it’s annoying,” she says.

Sunday and Simon begin to form a new, closer bond – almost against their will. By way of their remote location and absence of friends, they’re forced to spend time together.

We have filled every afternoon this week riding up and down the red asphalt on our bikes. The Malagash Bible Camp. The salt mine memorial. The church, the beaches, the wharves. We’ve touched every lobster trap. Climbed inside every abandoned rowboat. We spent hours sitting on top of barns, sneakers on hot metal. Fingers tracing rivets.     We should not be this close to animals this large. But who is left to tell us that? There’s no sign posted out in this field. Nobody is watching. Our grandmother is on her errands; our mother won’t leave her room. We are subject to no authority, my brother and I. We are free. Governed only with what little sense we were born with.

But Sunday has her own private area in the closet where she has been working on a special project. At first she keeps it entirely to herself, but Simon becomes increasingly curious about it. Soon Sunday is sharing bits and pieces of it with him; recordings she has taken of her father speaking. She’s been recording everything he says; even the conversations he’s had with her brother, her uncle, and her mother. Sunday’s plan is to create a computer virus that will keep her father alive forever.

I tell him every stupid hope and idea in my head about the computer virus. I tell him that it will be our father’s ghost. His memory. His echo. I tell him that a virus need not do harm. That not all self-propagating code is malicious. Our father’s virus would never delete files. Would never steal passwords or spy on the intimate moments of strangers. Would not spread like cancer, but like a story. Would slip through fibre optic cables to cross oceans,, would pass like radio waves through the walls of houses that nobody even knows are haunted. A ghost story that computers tell one another in the dark.

But “collecting” her father’s words ends up doing so much more than she thought it would.

Even now I know this book will stand out to me at the end of the year. So many things in it feel familiar to me; taking the phone off the hook at suppertime, sitting on the roof of a barn, playing in a field of cows, baked beans and brown bread. I found it nostalgic, comforting, and touching. Malagash is a beautiful portrait of a family in mourning. Read it. At 175 short pages, it won’t take long.

A few good lines:

His face is very serious, which is one of the ways my father smiles.

There’s so much meaning in every stupid little thing we say.

(One of her father’s jokes…) To be honest, I feel kind of foolish for eating all those salads.

Being alone is more satisfying when there’s a crowd nearby.

And if words mean something to you, if an idea moves you, aren’t you changed, just a little?

Further reading: 

Last year, I read Joey Comeau’s Overqualified.

Joey Comeau has some intriguing titles (and book covers) on his site…

Review at Atlantic Books Today: “Malagash is a unique take on death in the digital age. Comeau presents a forthright yet eloquent story about life, death and what we leave behind. Highly recommended.”

Review in The Star: “Comeau clamps down on the quirkiness to allow more graceful images, scenes and dialogue to blossom, meaning Malagash rings with authentic emotion.”

44 thoughts on “Malagash by Joey Comeau

  1. annelogan17 says:

    Gosh could this book be any different than Overqualified? It’s impressive that one author can come up with such different stuff, the mark of a true talent I would say.

    • Naomi says:

      I know! It has to be said that some of his other work is probably not appropriate for all readers (or suit the taste of all readers). But this one is really a sweet story that anyone would like, and that I’d let my kids read.

  2. Rick @ says:

    Yes! I’m so glad you got to it, and you loved it. It was such a great read for me. And thanks for highlighting two of my favourite lines:

    Being alone is more satisfying when there’s a crowd nearby.

    And if words mean something to you, if an idea moves you, aren’t you changed, just a little?

  3. roughghosts says:

    I have this little book too, but haven’t read it yet. I confess I’d never heard of Joey Comeau until I met him at Wordfest (picked him up at the airport actually with several other Canadian writers). Must get to it!

    • Naomi says:

      The scenery is all there, including an abandoned barn across the road from the grandmother’s house. And I think the father is at the hospital in Tatamagouche! I only meant that the story is universal – it could have happened anywhere, but I am personally charmed by the fact that it happens where it does. And you will be too! 🙂

  4. Grab the Lapels says:

    I heard something on NPR a while back about a man who had been recording his father when he knew his father was ill and wouldn’t recover. He asked the father all sorts of questions and then turned it into a sort of program/robot thing that allowed him (after his father died) to ask the program questions–and it would answer like his father was still alive!

  5. Sandra says:

    This sounds wonderful. Charming and poignant in equal measures. I’m trying to be stricter with myself about what I add to the tbr list. But this one really has to be added 🙂

  6. Slightly Bookist says:

    This book sounds great. I always think I’m on top of what books are coming out in Canada, but there are always some that I manage not to hear about. Thanks for writing about it.

    • Naomi says:

      I know what you mean… it’s amazing really that so many books can just keep on coming. Impossible to keep up with. I’m glad I hooked you with this one. Thanks for the comment!

  7. buriedinprint says:

    I’m so intrigued by the idea that this story is both very place-specific and universal; I love it when that happens. I know you’re probably avoiding his skinny little horror stories, but I think they’re very good; One Bloody Thing after Another was bizarrely charming. The Summer is Ended and We Are Not Yet Saved is also very funny, and the setting at Bible Camp adds another layer to the tropes he plays with; I think the letters between the boy (at camp) and his mother are touching and add a terrific dimension to the characters (but then I love letters). On a related note, this sounds like it would be a good fit for an episode of “Black Mirror” which explores the possibilities of downloading personality/memories/behaviours into substitutes designed to ease the process of mourning for those left behind (for those who like seriously disturbing television). And, yes, of course this one is on my list, and you’ve made it even more tempting now!

    • Naomi says:

      I’ve never heard of Black Mirror – sounds a bit creepy!
      I don’t know much about his other books besides Overqualified, but I’d love to read one set at Bible Camp. That sounds like it has potential for just about anything – comedy, horror… and I see it in our library system…

  8. Catherine says:

    This sounds like the quiet, character driven type of writing I love. Adding it to my TBR. It also reminds me of Kent Haruf. If you’ve read him, would you say this had a similar feel? He is one of my all-time favorite authors for the beauty of his prose.

    • Naomi says:

      I’ve only read one of Haruf’s books, but yes, that comparison isn’t too far off from what I’ve read (Our Souls at Night). It’s also short and sweet like his books. In any case, I can’t imagine not liking this book. 🙂

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