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Sylvanus Now

by Donna Morrissey

To read Sylvanus Now, the third novel from Donna Morrissey, is to be immersed in the life of a Newfoundland outport community in the middle of the last century. It is a bracing experience, a sudden immersion into a world of cold brutalities and realities.

At the heart of the novel is the love story between the title character, a cod jigger from remote Cooney Arm, and Adelaide, a beautiful, fine-boned girl from nearby Ragged Rock. When we first meet Sylvanus he is 14 years old, working an entire summer alone on his boat to catch enough fish to barter for a confirmation suit. He’s wearing the suit (with rubber boots) when he arrives at Adelaide’s door two years later to invite her out. Adelaide, who once dreamt of becoming a missionary, now only thinks about escape from the stultifying community and the incessant, unstoppable sea. Within months, Sylvanus is building his bride a house near his mother’s in Cooney Arm, rescuing her from a life of working in the flakes (where the cod are dried) or the new cannery. Or so he thinks.

There is little actual romance in Sylvanus Now. The world of the outports (where Morrissey was born, although she now lives in Halifax) is one of indiscriminate tragedy and loss, where hills become widow’s walks and cemeteries are kept close. It’s also a world in transition, as the traditional fishery is supplanted by gill nets and trawlers, with foreign factory ships literally on the horizon. Sylvanus and Adelaide try to stay true to themselves and their traditions, but as their personal tragedies mount, and the outside world begins to press into Cooney Arm, they are faced with inevitabilities that only seem like decisions, inevitabilities that they face in ways that are surprising, yet ring with truth.

Perhaps Morrissey’s greatest asset as a writer is that ring of truth. From the verisimilitude with which she depicts life in the outports to the note-perfect dialogue to the rich and colloquial narrative voice, Morrisey rarely falters. As a result, the world of Sylvanus Now is initially forbidding, but it opens up with a surprising ease and richness.

Morrissey has a keen hand with characterization. Sylvanus and Adelaide are realistically drawn, fraught with flaws and internal conflicts. Their relationship is unique and powerful, veiled in the mystery of realistic emotion. While many of the supporting characters slide into abstraction (Adelaide’s youngest siblings, for example, are little more than undifferentiated brats), some, including Sylvanus’s mother Eva and Adelaide’s friend Suze, are as vivid as the main characters.

Sylvanus Now is a powerful, moving evocation of lives and times long gone but close enough to be in living memory, a world vanished but brought vividly back to life in Morrissey’s caring hands.