Nicole Lundrigan has been teetering on the cusp of “next big thing” status since her debut, Unravelling Arva, was tagged as a top-10 pick for 2004 in The Globe and Mail. Two follow-ups, Thaw (2005) and The Seary Line (2008), both earned favourable reviews. There is a very good chance that her latest effort, Glass Boys, will finally catapult Lundrigan into the spotlight.
While the story can be described as a multi-generational family saga, Lundrigan wastes no time establishing that there is more to come than simple hatches, matches, and dispatches. Set in the fictional village of Knife’s Point, Newfoundland, the novel opens with a set of chapters that grab the reader by the collar and give a good shake.
The groundwork is laid with the introduction of Garrett Glass, a secretive and shifty young boy whose mother dotes on him fervently, much to the dismay of his stepfather, Eli Fagan. When Garrett disappears on a sunny summer day instead of helping with chores around the farm, Eli goes in search of him, only to discover that Garrett is keeping a secret so unnatural and unforgivable Eli seriously considers drowning him in the nearby stream.
Lewis Trench, the newly minted local constable, and his brother, Roy, both in a moonshine-induced stupor, unwittingly stumble upon Eli and Garrett. When Roy is killed during an altercation with Eli, the two families are set on parallel paths of destruction, the tragic convergence of which is inevitable.
With the bad blood between the Glass and Trench families established, the plot hurtles ahead. The momentum is so strong that a reader is often compelled to reread passages to revel in Lundrigan’s prose. Her writing is so enthralling, and the story so full of suspense and interest, that there is a temptation to allow the pages to fly by when they really should be savoured.
Still reeling from Roy’s death and Eli’s subsequent acquittal, Lewis meets Wilda Burry, a mysterious woman haunted by her father’s death and her own narrow escape from an abusive mother. For the soft-hearted Lewis, it is love at first sight, though Wilda’s reaction to his courtship is less romantic. Still, she tries to settle down in Knife’s Point and be a good wife. However, Wilda’s ceaseless attempts to run from her emotions and memories mean she is unable to stay in one place for long; even her two sons, Melvin and Toby, are unable to quash her frenetic need to keep moving. Her ultimate desertion is foretold well in advance, but the scene, when it eventually arrives, is fraught with palpable emotion.
The effect of Wilda’s departure on Melvin becomes obvious as the boys grow. His sense of betrayal is sharp and does not fade with time. He is Toby’s protector, and his brother follows him around like a happy puppy, too young to have suffered as much from Wilda’s abandonment. When the boys encounter Garrett in the woods, the fates of the two families are once again intertwined in a tragic event that propels the story to its conclusion.
Lundrigan has created a cast of believable, layered, and complex characters. Even the antiheroes are multidimensional and posess a level of humanity that opens the door to understanding, if not forgiveness. These are not Dickensian villains – evil for evil’s sake – but damaged souls who experience as much suffering as they dole out. Eli Fagan may be a “real son of a bitch,” but the tenderness he shows toward his youngest daughter, paired with the revelation of his own sad history, transform him from villain to one of the walking wounded. Conversely, even the most sympathetic players are not without flaws. It’s a testament to the author’s generous empathy that she is able to elicit as much compassion for the perpetrators of malevolent acts as for the victims.
Despite a heavy plot, Lundrigan intersperses scenes of joviality into her more morose or disturbing material. Her characters’ personalities bubble up off the page with humour as well as pathos, saving the novel from falling into dreary melancholy.
A native Newfoundlander, Lundrigan crafts an authentic representation of local language and syntax without slipping into cliché or stereotype. Comparisons to other Newfoundland authors are inevitable, and while Lundrigan’s writing draws on themes of hardship, difficult family relationships, and abuse that will be familiar to readers of Michael Winter and Lisa Moore, her voice is strong enough to stand on its own. Perhaps, with her latest effort, she will finally earn the right to have up-and-comers compared to her.