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Nine Bells for a Man

by Peter Unwin

Stephen Crane’s short story “The Open Boat” and Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey both resonate in Peter Unwin’s captivating debut novel, Nine Bells for a Man. Unwin takes the cold facts of an actual Canadian nautical disaster and turns them into a thrilling adventure of fate and survival.

In lyrical prose imbued with a sense of tragic irony, Unwin vividly reconstructs the sinking of the steamboat Mayflower in November of 1912, near Barry’s Bay, Ontario. The story centres on 25-year-old Robert Pachal, a dairy farmer in the settlement of Ebenezer, Saskatchewan. When his brother-in-law dies in an apparent hunting accident, Robert agrees to take the body east for burial, setting in motion a series of events that ultimately ends in catastrophe.

Unwin is especially accomplished in presenting rich regional detail. Robert’s train journey moves from the “flat, pineless vacancy of the West” to the “brown, crenellated architecture” of Winnipeg, through the slashed timberland and rocks of the Ontario shield. However, the author arguably devotes too much attention – more than one-third of the novel – to the cross-country train ride.

The last leg of Robert’s trip takes place on the Mayflower, where he joins a small group of travellers that includes four salesmen and a feisty octogenarian who claims to have once seen an apparition of the Virgin Mary. Unwin encapsulates entire lives in brief vignettes here – an effective technique, although the overlapping stories do become repetitious.

Like Crane’s doomed crew and Wilder’s divinely marked pilgrims, the passengers battle natural and supernatural elements: gale force winds, a fierce snowstorm, and an “amphitheatre of darkness.” Despite some minor narrative missteps, Nine Bells for a Man is a bittersweet tale of the universal search for land and home. The matins for the dead from which the novel takes its title reverberates with the poignant grief of an entire town.