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Minister Without Portfolio

by Michael Winter

Henry Hayward is the eponymous official in Michael Winter’s latest novel, a brooding portrait of rural Newfoundland that, like the weather on the Rock, can turn menacing in a hurry.

Henry, freshly heartbroken from a failed relationship, decamps to Afghanistan as hired labour along with his buddy, John, joining their long-time reservist friend Patrick “Tender” Morris. One morning, hungover after a night of vodka and cards, the three are in their Jeep when they stop to investigate a disturbance. No sooner have Henry and John got out of the vehicle than Tender is attacked by a shadowy figure. Moments later, Tender and the Jeep are blown “into ribbons of metal lighter than air.” Henry realizes Tender couldn’t defend himself because, in the sloppiness of the morning, Henry had appropriated his buddy’s gun.

Back home in Newfoundland, Henry reconnects with Tender’s widow, Martha, who doesn’t know the particulars of that awful morning and, to further complicate things, is pregnant with Tender’s child.

Winter captures the nuances of rural Newfoundland life, with its help-thy-neighbour spirit, along with the fragility of life in a place where humans are always battling nature. The author weaves potential calamity seamlessly into the quotidian and prosaic. Twice, Henry almost gets lost at sea in a dory after the fog rolls in precipitously; he falls into an incinerator at the local dump and narrowly avoids being cooked to death. Careless teens accidentally set a forest on fire. Town local Emerson Grandy is left with hooks for hands after a cement pipe lands on him at a construction site. The author imbues his characters with such depth that we care deeply about what happens to them.

“Death by misadventure” may, the novel suggests, be just another way of referring to everyday life when you’re trying to get by, put down roots, find someone to love, and claim a piece of land as your home. What is home, Henry wonders, and how do we continue living each day? “I have no army telling me what to do,” he thinks, “except for the army of compulsion that is inside each and every one of us.”