Like Nova Scotia author Linda Little’s previous novels, Strong Hollow and Scotch River (awarded top prize at the 2007 Atlantic Book Awards), her third outing is set in the Maritimes region she knows and obviously loves. The area’s intense and unforgiving natural landscape serves as a vivid backdrop for this multi-generational, character-driven tale, which feels remarkably epic for a book of such modest length.
Grist takes place between 1875 and 1920, largely within the confines of a remote mill farm. The farm’s daily and seasonal routines create a satisfying rhythm punctuated by a series of narrative shocks. The novel tells the story of Penelope, who comes to the farm as the bride of the taciturn miller, Ewan. His awkward approximation of courtship is immediately replaced by overbearing control and neglect. The marriage disintegrates, but Penelope endures, emotionally and physically, as she strives to make a better life for her children and grandchildren.
With its bleak fatalism, tragically flawed characters, and depiction of the grind of hard labour, Grist is reminiscent of the work of Thomas Hardy, yet there are also echoes of a very different author: L.M. Montgomery. The defiant hopefulness, the lyrical descriptions of landscape and seasons, and the dialogue’s old-fashioned Maritime feel evoke the PEI author’s classic novels. Indeed, Penelope’s flashes of dry, practical wit are dead ringers for the acerbic Marilla from Montgomery’s Anne books.
Grist convincingly captures an almost forgotten past, including some obviously well-researched details about the operation of mills. Mostly cast as a story told by Penelope to her granddaughter, the narrative is twice interrupted by Ewan’s third-person perspective. Ewan’s point of view allows the reader to understand, if not sympathize with, his actions (he was bullied as a boy, and is evidently autistic), but these sections do not sit comfortably within the book’s overall structure.
However, this small jolt to Grist’s machinery does little to detract from what is otherwise an accomplished and darkly beautiful novel.