Rita Van Loon and Hubert Hansen, former residents of the fictional Nova Scotia town of Myrtle, share the job of narrating Elaine McCluskey’s offbeat second novel, and they have things they would like to get off their chests.
Forever immortalized as a down-and-out teenager in a distressing photograph that ran in a national newspaper alongside a story depicting Myrtle as a backwater full of losers, the adult Rita is determined to set the record straight about the iconic photo’s origins and its lasting impact on her. Hubert, a prize-winning novelist, wants to come clean about his youthful nocturnal activities following his father’s accidental death and a move to Myrtle from Newfoundland with his mother.
McCluskey unwinds her novel as a slow-burning progression, creating an undercurrent of something sinister lurking among the banalities of life in Myrtle. Prepared for some shocking revelation worthy of Shirley Jackson, we’re disappointed to discover that there is nothing particularly menacing going on. Perhaps we shouldn’t be disappointed, though, considering that Rita warns us early, “if it all ends up sounding ordinary, that is fine because most of our world is ordinary.”
That, in fact, seems to be part of the point of The Most Heartless Town in Canada: to emphasize that Myrtle – with its poultry plant, courthouse, and community pool – is as ordinary as any other small town, and the ordinary, hard-working folk who inhabit such places do not deserve to be portrayed by big-city journalists as tragic or stupid. As Rita points out, “I am a real person, you see, and not a symbol of that far-flung constellation known as dying Canada.”
Point taken, but McCluskey’s cast of characters – and it is quite large – is anything but ordinary, especially when it comes to Pammy Pottie, Rita’s well-meaning but luckless swim coach, and her motley crew of swimmers. Myrtle is full of oddballs, which is lucky for us, because that, more than anything else, is what gives this novel its quirky charm.