THE SHIPPING NEWS by Annie Proulx
Annie Proulx’s THE SHIPPING NEWS is a story of healing. Through Proulx’s stilted and terse writing style we meet Quoyle, a pathetic oaf of a man whom fate has given any special favors. Quoyle grew up with unloving parents, marries an unfaithful woman (unsuitably named Petal Bear) and works an unforgiving job cycle that has him flitting back and forth between dead end jobs. Eventually, however, Petal commits her most atrocious crime, selling the couple’s two daughters, Bunny and Sunshine, to a child pornographer and running off with another man. Fate catches up to her, however, and she is in a fatal car crash that sets Quoyle’s rebuilding process in motion. Soon, Quoyle finds himself moving his family, along with an aunt who had been visiting to work out the details of Quoyle’s parents’ estate, to Newfoundland, the land of his ancestors.
Once in Newfoundland, the healing of Quoyle’s soul begins. Quoyle makes friends, meets a woman, experiences the joys of fatherhood unadulterated by the influence of their cruel mother and enjoys the fruits of his newfound career ambitions. It is interesting to note that at this point, a mere 30 or so pages into the novel, the bulk of the action has already occurred. While the ensuing action occurs slowly and deliberately, the subtle changes in Quoyle’s persona are enough to propel the novel forward.
One of Proulx’s greatest achievements in THE SHIPPING NEWS is her success in writing a story of rebirth amidst a backdrop of decline. A parellel plot to Quoyle’s story is the story of a town and its disappearing way of wife. The town of Killick-Claw and the small Newfoundland burgs that surround it were built on the promise of the fishing trade. Everyone in town is economically connected to the trade and has ancestor upon ancestor who survived, and even prospered, doing the same. In a modern society infiltrated by corporate conglomerations, however, the promise of this simple way of life is disappearing. As Proulx illustrates the dilemma of the disappearing agrarian lifestyle she also provides hope in Quoyle and his ability to revive his spirit in the same setting.
While I found myself appreciative of Proulx’s talent as a writer while reading THE SHIPPING NEWS, my ultimate opinion of the book is that it really was not for me. While I’m sure realistic, the portrayal of the Newfoundland locals and the local history came off too crass for me at times, making it hard to connect with them. Similarly, while Proulx’s disjointed writing style is certainly unprecendented, I found it off-putting for the novel format. However, with all of that said, I still enjoyed the story of Quoyle and the skill that went into its composition.