Megan Gail Coles gives us warning before the narrative begins: “This might hurt a little. Be brave.“
It will storm again today as surely as the nearly forty will go out again in four days’ time. The babysitter will be called. The cat will be let in. They will flee their houses for a little look around.
Get the stink of house off ya.
They will reliably cloak this smell of domestication in alcohol and nicotine and self-loathing until Monday. Mondays are for quitting everything. Again. Except when it storms on Monday. Then quitting everything is pushed to Tuesday.
Today is such a Tuesday.
Taking place in the course of one day, this novel is all about the characters. Hit with them all at once, it takes a bit of time to get them straightened out. Once that happens, you can settle into what’s going on among them, between them, and inside them. And there’s a lot.
In St. John’s… being not shitty is the same as being awesome.
Iris and Olive are both considered “baygirls”, meaning that they’re not from the city of St. John’s. They’re from up north, “… in a place where polar bears ate your dog.” Both women have been treated badly over the years, and they both suffer from poor self-esteem. Olive, in particular has had a rough go of it, and still seems almost childlike in her thinking.
Iris was right. Olive would only ever be a girl.
This happened sometimes when people are mistreated like Olive was mistreated.
They cannot grow out of it. They remain stuck in their first hurt. And the frustration felt is further amplified by the world’s insistence they do the thing they are struggling to do. Grow up. Get on with it. Sort yourself out. Get your shit together.
Occasionally, Olive searched about the place for her shit to gather together only to discover she didn’t have the shit they were speaking of. No one ever gave it to her. She received her fair share of shit now mind, but not the kind anyone would willingly collect. When Olive thought on it like this, she wished after some record of it as proof to show those who grew impatient.
A museum exhibit to walk through recounting all the unkindness shown her recklessly and randomly by people who determined her value less.
Iris is having an affair with her boss John – the head chef at The Hazel. It’s Valentine’s Day, and the place is open despite the wintry weather they’ve been getting. Olive shows up first, looking for a bit of warmth and a bowl of soup. Iris is annoyed to find her there, yet gives Olive her boots so her feet don’t freeze when she leaves.
Anger trumps everything. Even alcohol poisoning. Anger and desperation are twin crutches holding Iris up, and she is half grateful for even this unsustainable support.
John’s wife George shows up next, unexpectedly. John tries to avoid her until he can get Iris washed off his face. George is the whole reason John is the chef at has his own restaurant. So why is he risking everything?
… there are nice couples in St. John’s. There are men and women who love each other in Newfoundland. There is warmth and happiness, in the clear and understood. Some people just go for dinner and laugh in a lovely good-natured way about what they will do later in the dark. And it is not wrong or gross or naughty. It is joyful…
And maybe that is what John thinks he is doing with his wife now. Or what he did with Iris in the same small space twelve hours ago. But it is not. And it is sad that John cannot tell the difference. That is John’s great shame. A pity, really.
Self-destructive behaviour runs rampant in this book. Grieving for Tom, Damian has just come off one of the biggest benders of his life. He came into work reeking of alcohol and is dipping into more to get through the day.
He has the look of a person who has not been eating food recently. Ben hands him an OJ and ginger ale and everyone watches it disperse through his body like African rivers flooding the great plains after the seasonal drought. John can see the vitamins and minerals moving like emergency service providers dispatched at an accident scene.
Calv seems like a good guy who has made some terrible decisions – one in particular – and it’s wreaking havoc on his conscience. To make matters worse, he continues to go out with the repugnant Roger, and is with him now at The Hazel. He knows how his sister Amanda feels about Roger (He knows how his sister feels about a lot of things!), and desperately hopes not to run into her.
Everything was always about her, about being nice to Amanda, watching her prance around, or listening to her every jesus thought on why fast food was not food and hydro projects was evil and oil was dirty and how everything and anything Calv was ever interested in or into was wrong, wrong, wrong. Amanda made Calv feel like he was destroying the fucking planet by his own self, but he was just doing what every other jesus human was doing.
Amanda is going to give herself bad nerves worrying over shit she got no control over.
And she says that’s his fault too. That he don’t do his share of worrying over anything. None of them do, so all the women is left to worry their own worries and the worries of every man nearby who is too busy playing some fake game in a fantasy world.
And then there’s Major David, Mayor of St. John’s, who seems to collect all the misconceptions and stereotypes there ever were and use them to form ludicrous opinions.
She doesn’t like him. It’s perceptible. That, or she’s on her period. Probably both. He’s heard that the serving staff, being primarily female, get synced up. He would like to see a study on that. Major David has heard that they have periods for weeks now because of the new contraceptives. He’s convinced, convinced, that all the estrogen they piss out into the harbour is why there are more homosexuals. When he was a young man there was hardly a queer in Newfoundland, and now they’re everywhere. The fellow wiping the glassware for example. Gay. Those mannerisms. That haircut. Gay gay gay.
He don’t mind gay people now, he just wishes they didn’t all look so fit.
It seems clear to me that Megan Gail Coles wrote this book with the #metoo movement in mind, among other things.
Stand and stay and suffer in what you’ve been trained to think is noble silence. This conceit, though it has served women poorly throughout history, is still wildly popular.
But there are rays of hope (in addition to the fact that the author assures us there are good people in Newfoundland): Amanda is a vocal women’s activist; I have confidence Calv is going to soon see the light; Iris has a good friend looking out for her; Tom comes from a good family (“Tom had supportive parents who were actually still married to each other on purpose.”); and there’s Omi, a Nigerian immigrant, who gently massages the warmth back into Olive’s feet.
Maybe the hard truths in this book will go some way into bringing about the change Coles is fighting for in the province she loves.
There stretching out, shimmering lean and fierce, their razored coastline, windswept and weather-beaten, a Strait of Belle Isle, bountiful and hardened, this the place that made them, all the good bits plaited broadside the bad, unknowingly mixed, indivisible, a savage braid surviving the ragged shore, stronger still, a threat, a comfort, a forgiveness, always.
Between Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club and her short story collection Eating Habits of the Chronically Lonesome, I am a devoted fan and will be watching for more from Megan Gail Coles.
Review at the Quill & Quire: “Coles rages at times, veering away from novelistic prose into something more akin to indictment or homily, speaking directly to the reader in a tone that commands attention and recognition. She calls out in equal measure the men who perpetrate abuse against women and the ones who stand by and do nothing to stop it from happening, as well as the women who enable and defend the offenders.”
The Chat at the 49th Shelf: “You have to leave the man who smacks and gaslights you by foot on the only road out of town while everyone watches you walk away. Many of us don’t make it and I’ve had enough of everyone pretending that doesn’t happen when it is an open secret that it goddamn well does.”
“The book is challenging. It is 400-plus pages of densely packed hard truths.”
“Many of us have been running from classism, misogyny and racism our whole lives. So I turned to face that on the page and I hope it helped because it was not a painless turn.”
Review at The Telegram: “Despite the novel’s angry, demanding tones, Coles said writing it was an act of love.”