Quill and Quire


« Back to
Book Reviews

The Town That Forgot How to Breathe

by Kenneth J. Harvey

In these days of SARS and West Nile virus, Kenneth Harvey’s new novel about a catastrophic illness devastating an outport Newfoundland community is timely. But while whatever is filling the hospital with the stricken folk of Bareneed is severe, respiratory, and acute, it is like no known virus. And it is only one aspect of a moiling, preternatural miasma somehow connected to a crack in the ocean floor belching up bodies drowned years and even centuries before. Amber rays and disrupted electronic fields are involved. So are fish.

At the heart of his apocalyptic tale Harvey places the troubled Blackwood family: Joseph, his estranged wife, Kim, and their small daughter, Robin. Joseph, a stressed-out fisheries officer from St. John’s, rents an empty house in the town where his father was born and takes Robin there for a restorative summer vacation.

Immediately threats loom. Next door, a beautiful woman grieves for her drowned husband and little girl. The violence surrounding that tragedy has turned the dead child into a restless, dangerous ghost who seeks out Robin as a playmate. Meanwhile others in the community are infected with a blackness that makes them lash out at those around them before it literally stops their breath. Barricades go up around the town to halt the epidemic’s spread, but even the World Health Organization would have trouble figuring out how to contain this one.

When Joseph is afflicted with the violent sexual hallucinations connected to the disease, we know we’re in classic Harvey territory. In his previous 13 books, this Newfoundland writer, now in mid-career, has made many forays into the heart of darkness. However, in his latest metaphysical thriller, the evil that Harvey so brilliantly and repellently evokes does not overpower the narrative as it has in some of his previous works.

Harvey also provides relief for the reader by frequently switching focus, although the multiple viewpoints have the negative effect of distancing us emotionally from the characters. He leavens the darkness as well with some sweet and bracing goodness on the other side. The characters are a motley group, some with “the sight” and some without, among them the toothless nonagenarian Miss Eileen Laracy, Tommy Quilty (stolen by the fairies and returned rather the worse for wear), elderly Dr. Thompson and his cat, a towering Métis RCMP officer, and Joseph’s acerbic Uncle Doug. With hundreds of pages in which to defeat the darkness, there are hopeful signs that most of them will come out of this alive – if they can just keep ahead of that approaching tsunami.

Harvey’s elaborate and ecumenical psychic landscape must have required flowcharts and diagrams to keep it all straight in his head. He weaves together ghosts and spirits, history and legend, obsessive love, fairies, and phantasmagoric interventions from the deep. Fish change colour and belch up swallowed heads; two leaping swordfish slice each other in two. There are overtones of Alfred Hitchcock and Stephen King, nods to Beowulf and Virginia Woolf. What a long, strange trip it is (and a little cutting wouldn’t have spoiled the fun a bit).

Harvey’s massive opus joins the current literary juggernaut that appears to be relocating Newfoundland from Canada’s margins to the centre of the universe. This passionate and inventive fable about the traumatic loss of dignity and identity of a deeply rooted community continues the roll. You can’t put down The Town That Forgot How to Breathe without thinking that economic and political decisions in remote centres of power can kill a people as effectively and remorselessly as any plague.


Reviewer: Maureen Garvie

Publisher: Raincoast Books


Price: $24.95

Page Count: 480 pp

Format: Paper

ISBN: 1-55192-592-3

Issue Date: 2003-7

Categories: Fiction: Novels