The publication of Wayne Johnston’s 1998 novel, The Colony of Unrequited Dreams, brought as much consternation as praise. While Johnston’s portrayal of Newfoundland’s “father of Confederation,” Joey Smallwood, proved contentious, another character emerged as a reader favourite: Sheilagh Fielding, Smallwood’s unrequited love and eventual nemesis.
Johnston, apparently as fond of the alcoholic, sardonic, tragic character as readers had been, made the surprising decision to write another novel covering the same time period and many of the same events, this time from Fielding’s point of view. A starred Q&Q review of that book, The Custodian of Paradise, concluded: “By the book’s end, many mysteries have been laid to rest, only to be replaced with new ones. This raises the happy possibility that Johnston intends to return to the scene again.”
Wish granted. Though relegated to a more supporting role, Fielding figures prominently in Johnston’s newest novel, First Snow, Last Light. Sadly, this time around the character seems tired. While her wit remains as sharp, she is not aging well. By the novel’s end, it feels very much like Johnston, overly fond of his creation, was determined to wrap up her story with enough hope and happiness to make up for the torment she’d endured at his hands throughout her existence.
Though settling Fielding’s affairs appears to be part of Jonhston’s plan, hers is not the primary focus of the story. At the centre of First Snow, Last Light is a mystery. The book opens with a second-person account that sets the scene for the tale of obsession, madness, and dark family secrets that is to follow. A boy returns home from school to find his house empty, the front door locked and his hermit-like mother nowhere to be found. Panicking, the boy – 14-year-old Ned Vatcher – runs back to school, where he finds his running coach, Father Duggan, and explains that his parents have disappeared. A cruel winter storm builds, but still Ned’s parents don’t come home. Eventually, they are believed to have been lost in the storm, but Ned knows something more is going on; there’s no way his mother would have left with his father in the middle of the day. She never went anywhere in the car unless Ned was there, too.
Finding out what happened to Edgar and Megan Vatcher becomes a lifelong quest for their son. Once it is clear Ned’s parents will not be coming back, the boy is sent to live with his paternal grandmother, Nan Finn, and grandfather, Reg, who has been laid low by a stroke that rendered him deaf and mute. At the Vatcher house, another mystery reigns: the death of Nan Finn and Reg’s son, Phonse, who went out on the sea with his fisherman father on a sunny, clear day, but never returned. While still able to speak, Reg claimed a rogue wave had drowned his son, but Nan Finn is convinced that something more nefarious happened that day, and constantly lambastes Reg in an effort to both vent her sorrow and cast accusation.
The combination of these two mysteries is almost too much for one book. Connections between them are meted out over the course of a slow-moving plot that jumps back and forth over three decades from the mid-1930s onward, with a few earlier episodes related via letters or flashbacks. Through it all, we are given Ned’s life from the age of 14 as he goes to school in Boston and lives in New York, returns to St. John’s and becomes a wealthy businessman (reminiscent of Howard Hughes in his obsessions and spending, but without the womanizing), adopts an orphaned boy whom he raises with the child’s aunt, and compulsively searches for his parents, all while spiralling into alcoholism and mental illness. Sadly, Ned’s first-person narration is so completely devoid of emotion it is difficult to believe or become invested in his story. Were it not for the intermittent chapters narrated by Fielding, the book would feel completely lifeless.
There is also the matter of the plot. Fielding’s storyline, while interwoven with Ned’s, is at least straightforward and satisfying. But even Johnston seems to feel the need to point out how convoluted Ned’s narrative is, using the character himself as a conduit. When Ned uncovers Reg’s secret, he laments the legacy he’s placed upon his adopted son’s shoulders: “A child, who didn’t know who his father was, a child, possibly of rape, didn’t need the added burden of a grandfather who had had an affair with his brother’s wife, which had led to another brother’s murder at the hands of their father, and his parents’ and wife’s chronic misery.”
With First Snow, Last Light, Johnston may have given the character of Fielding the swan song she deserves, but the central story of Ned Vatcher and his parents isn’t strong or engaging enough to carry the novel otherwise. While the writing overall is as crisply wry as ever, Ned’s narration is oddly flat. Fans of Johnston’s previous novels may well appreciate the return to familiarity, but will likely be disappointed by this latest work.