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All This Town Remembers

by Sean Johnston

Adam, the protagonist of Sean Johnston’s first novel, has just returned from working the oil fields of Alberta to the small town in Saskatchewan where he grew up. He has suffered a head injury (though this is undisclosed for more than half the book, an omission that’s more frustrating than tantalizing). He struggles to reconnect with those close to him, including Ellen, who was falling in love with him just as he left town for the booming province next door.

Readers feel the discomfort in the marriage of convenience between Adam and Ellen. Johnston, whose first book of short stories won the ReLit Award in 2003, illustrates well the uneasy state of affairs between the two, and Adam’s state of mind, in how Ellen always puts her husband’s boots away. He leaves them at the front door so he can find them in a rush, such as when – in a well-executed and sad scene – he has to confront a menacing neighbour who has grabbed their wandering dog, Coco.

The depiction of present relationships is well done, but Johnston holds back too long and too tightly on two key events: the bus accident 25 years earlier that killed Adam’s buddy Joey Fallow, the star of their hockey team, and the CBC TV movie being made about the tragedy. It would have been good to see more of the interaction between the town’s residents and the visiting crew and actors. (Though there’s a funny exchange between Adam and the actor playing him.)

In a novel about a town creating a mythology out of a past tragedy, it is crucial to get the structure right. All This Town Remembers’ long setup is there to show readers how adored Fallow was in the community, and how Adam stood in relation to him. Unfortunately, by the time the novel really gets going, many readers may no longer care.