In Michael Crummey’s novel, Sweetland, a Newfoundlander named Queenie offers some literary criticism. Concerning books about her province, she says: “It was a torture to get through them. They were every one depressing. . . . Or nothing happened. Or there was no point to the story.” She adds that they are unrecognizable and probably written by outsiders.
Does Newfoundlander Crummey rise to Queenie’s challenge? Readers may decide for themselves. But what Sweetland lacks in sweetness and light, it makes up for in authenticity.
The title refers to an island and one of its eponymous residents, 70-year-old Moses Sweetland, who makes some of Cormac McCarthy’s surlier characters seem like Holly Golightly. The Canadian government is so convinced of the island’s hopelessness that it will generously pay its inhabitants to relocate. This provokes a battle between Sweetland and the prosperous mainland.
Once, fishing supported the communities along the North Atlantic coast. With the collapse of the cod stocks and fish populations through overfishing and climate change, this support is increasingly tenuous. Sweetland is thus in part a parable of how environmental collapse and social collapse are one. Crummey’s Newfoundland has become, at best, a remittance economy and, at worst, a stopover for Sri Lankan refugees headed to Toronto.
Sweetland is purposeful, and it certainly evokes the rawness and fragility of life in Newfoundland. It is not, however, an advertisement for the place, as Crummey devotes pages of rather self-consciously muscular prose to food preparation or to Sweetland grumbling like King Lear in various squalls— admitting with grave understatement that he “sounded slightly unhinged.”
Sweetland is both a testament to human resilience and a keen study of where that resilience shades into cussedness and derangement.