This book is a monster. In scope, in page count, in concept. A beautiful, expansive monster. Why do all monsters have to be bad? Can’t they just be a little scary because they’re so wondrous?
First Snow, Last Light. I’m not even sure where to start. Actually, let’s start with the priest, Duggan. It’s a bit part, but Duggan just might the only character we can’t question for his goodness. Take that literary tropes. Take that real life tropes. A good priest. One who is sweet, and kind, and non-judgemental. He might be the squeaky-cleanest character in the whole book. He’s my favourite. I’ll be a little biased about this.
So what’s it all about? A lot. A lot of very interesting things. First of all, Newfoundland joining Canada. This gets pretty glossed over in high school Canadian history classes. There’s nearly nothing about why this happens, or how people felt about it, so reading about that was interesting, as Wayne Johnston’s book is set there in the decades prior and after 1949 confederation. Which I’ve reminded myself to Google myself further.
Ned Vatcher has an idyllic life with his parents, with only minor upsets—like the fact his mum wants to ditch the colony and head back to London, where she’s from. His dad has a fancy government job on the verge of implosion, but all this is well kept from him. At 14, Ned comes home and finds his parents gone. His house is locked up, the car is missing. Ned knows, absolutely knows, that something terrible has happened. His mother would never not be home for him.
Ned grows up among the skeletons of his father’s poor relations. He’s good at sports like high jump and running and Duggan helps him go to an American school. He comes home, he makes an absurd amount of money, and he creates a sort-of family around him. But Ned’s a guy who can’t let things go. Everything is marked by the day his beloved parents went missing. He’s obsessed, and drinking heavily. Johnston moves the plot in directions you can imagine, and some you can’t. The whole is far greater than the pieces. The writing is greater than the pieces of story.
Consider what Johnston writes about the high jump, at which Ned so excels:
“But when you hit the bar and bring it down with you, or on you, or tangled up between your legs, you fail so loudly as to attract everyone’s attention. You startle spectators of other field events or races. You disappoint everyone who thought you would succeed, or had succeeded, or should have succeeded, had you not made that last-second gaffe born of complacency, born of prematurely thinking that you had made it and letting up too soon. In jumping, you fail completely but inevitably because, in every competition, you must jump until you fail.”
If that isn’t a damn perfect explanation for life itself, I don’t know what is.
Wayne Johnston was at Events 56 (Out of Character) and 73 (A Boy’s Life) at the 2017 Vancouver Writers Festival.