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The Custodian of Paradise

by Wayne Johnston

In The Colony of Unrequited Dreams, his acclaimed 1999 novel fashioned loosely around the life of Joey Smallwood, Wayne Johnston created a brilliant foil for the undersized premier in the towering character of Sheilagh Fielding. Apparently agreeing with many readers that she was unforgettable and too good to waste, Johnston gives Fielding her own story to tell this time out.

In one of several lacunae in her life, Fielding has exiled herself to an island off the coast of Newfoundland. It is a landscape of aching melancholy, inhabited only by feral dogs and horses. Alone, deeply wounded, indomitably stoic, she revisits the painful events of her life and unravels the mystery of her genes. If, as critics have suggested, Fielding is like Newfoundland itself – huge, beautiful, with an unknown heart (and an alcohol problem) – the trope here extends to her ancestry, which is irregular and also larger than life.

In the manner of Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet, events in this book don’t necessarily line up with those in the first. Fielding’s account of the liaison that produced her schoolgirl pregnancy is rather different from what she told Smallwood, while her version of their relationship is somewhat less romantic. This book is also less likely to ruffle feathers, as Smallwood’s role in it is smaller and by now familiar.

In place of the Histories of the first book, Johnston gives us Fielding’s Swiftian newspaper columns, in which she gnaws away at the abuses of class and power like a dog with a stinking bone. The truly extraordinary addition to this book is Fielding’s “real” father. An intimate witness to her life, to a degree that strains credulity even as it intrigues, he is an invisible, magical figure, except for the outsized corpse he leaves behind.

By the book’s end, many mysteries have been laid to rest, only to be replaced with new ones. This raises the happy possibility that Johnston intends to return to the scene again.