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No man an island?

09 October 2015

by Alexander Lucie-Smith

SWEETLAND, the title of Michael Crummey’s ruminative and beautiful novel (Corsair, £16.99 (£15.30 Use code CT907); 978-1-4721-1887-5), is also the name of its leading character, and of a (fictional) island off the coast of Newfoundland.

Moses Sweetland is now 70 years old, and the Canadian government wants to evacuate the island, once a fishing community, now in decline, thanks to the ban on cod-fishing. The government is offering a generous resettlement package, provided all the islanders take it. Sweetland is the last of the hold-outs, which does not make him popular.

But this is not really a story about one man’s struggle to preserve his home: it is much more an existential novel, and the exploration of a world; for everything that happens does so inside Sweetland’s head. There is some wonderful evocation of sea and landscape, as experienced through Sweetland’s eyes. And there is the story of family tragedy and quirks: a suicide, an accidental death, and a hidden affair.

In addition, various flashbacks tell us how Sweetland the man got to be this way, and how his life was changed by catastrophe. Towards the end of the book, there is a convincing account of loneliness, isolation, and a slow descent into delusional madness.

No man is an island, we all know, but this book examines the way in which one man becomes as isolated as the island he is named after. The novel is, among many other things, an examination of the unravelling of the ties that hold communities together, and the ties that hold out personal identities together. Both the community of Sweetland, and the man himself, dissolve before our eyes.

As a bonus, there is the best characterisation of a dog that I have experienced in a long time. Slow-moving, thoughtful, sad, and beautiful, Sweetland is a book to provoke reflection about the fabric and texture of life itself.

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