February, by Lisa Moore

mooreLisa Moore is a Newfoundland-based novelist who has attracted substantial attention in Canadian book prize circles despite have only published three books. Her second volume of short stories, Open, was shortlisted for the Giller Prize. Her first novel, Alligator, was also Giller shortlisted and won the Canadian-Caribbean section of the Commonwealth Prize. So when word went out that her second novel, February, would be a story based on the tragic sinking of the Ocean Ranger oil rig in 1982, many Canadian readers — including this one — awaited the book with anticipation.

The Ocean Ranger disaster took the lives of all 84 men on board. Throughout its history, Newfoundland has been accustomed to the sea claiming its men — in some ways this (entirely preventable) tragedy was a reminder that while the world and Newfoundland’s economy has changed, the destructive power of nature and the ocean has not changed at all.

Moore’s central character, Helen O’Mara, lost her husband of eight years, Cal, in that sinking. She was left with three children, five, six and seven years old, and another on the way. While all that happened many years ago, the author tells most of the story from a viewpoint 26 years later in 2008, with periodic flashbacks to 1982 and even earlier in Cal and Helen’s relationship.

Helen is still haunted by the loss — while Moore never actually says it, it is hard not to assume that Helen has thought about it every single day since. Life has been lonely throughout that quarter century, but has become even more lonely since her children left home. At least when she was rearing them, Helen had something to pay attention to. Now, even though her three adult daughters have remained in St. John’s and are nearby, that loneliness has become even more oppressive and her memories even more haunting:

Her black cardigan hanging on the closet door. Always there is that high-pitched terror when the phone rings at night: Is someone hurt? Louise (her sister) has had a few scares with angina. An ambulance last winter. Helen is frightened of the phone.

Her cardigan looked like a presence, a ghost. She was old, after all, and yes, years had passed. The bed flying over the edge of a cliff and a siren ringing out across the water and her body seemed to fall at a slower rate than the bed and she felt the bed hit with a plosh and then she hit the bed and began to sink, but it was just the phone, not a siren. The phone. Answer the phone. I’m certainly not old, she thought, snatching the receiver before she missed the call.

The phone call that provokes this is from her son John, the most independent and rebellious of her children, the only one who has not fallen into a “traditional” Newfoundland life. He is a consultant with a firm that specializes in reducing costs for energy firms by “rationalizing” their safety procedures, eliminating the waste of both time and money (the irony is rather crude). He is phoning from Singapore where he has just got a call from Jane Downey, a woman with whom he had a one week fling in Iceland, has not heard from since and who has just called him to say that she is seven months pregnant. John is headed home, he is not sure to what.

Moore does keep both these story lines going in the present, interspersed with flashbacks centred around Helen’s married life, the Ocean Ranger and the days, months and years immediately following the disaster. It is an awkward structure but she does make it easier to follow with helpful subheads that introduce each section with both subject and date.

I will admit I had problems with both Open and Alligator and have the same problems with February. For this reader, Moore’s books have a lot of breadth and not a lot of depth. She loves description, she loves a geographically roaming narrative (this book goes to Florida, Greece and Mexico in addition to Singapore and New York). I find it distracting and as the book goes on increasingly annoying — given the recognition her previous books have received it would seem that other readers don’t find this to be the case.

Consider this example. It is a description of Jane’s academic work for her master’s thesis where she studied the street people of New York City:

But she had learned things she didn’t put in the thesis. The street people had frightened her. Some poor people were right-wing and violent. Some were avaricious. They were hungry and cold. They had runny noses and glittery snot-caked sleeves. They ate with their mouths open. They had glazed eyes and addictions. They were illiterate and they had lice. Or they were brilliant and meticulous with their appearance and saintly. They could see ghosts. They were fair-minded. They shared what they had. They had nothing. They fed the pigeons. They were full of wisdom. They were full of worms. They were full of AIDS. They were spiritually bereft. They were luckless. They were a they. Best of all, they knew the scope of a single lifetime and how not to make a mark.

Jane is a minor character in the book, not fully developed, and that section is the only reference to her work in New York. The novel has numerous other similar digressions, most of which feature the same clipped sentences and shotgun prose that that quote has. It wouldn’t be so bad if these flights reflected on the author’s central themes — instead I can’t help but wonder if the author is using them to avoid fully addressing and developing those themes or, worse yet, doesn’t know how to do that.

I plead guilty to having a preference for depth over breadth. I would make the same criticism of Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger and it won the 2008 Man Booker Prize. Certainly, it is consistent with Lisa Moore’s style in her previous books — I’ll just have to acknowledge that writing which disturbs some readers like me is attractive to others.

Lisa Moore deserves credit for taking a significant, tragic event and examining how it wounded and effected not just individuals, but an entire community — some of the best parts of the book are the sections describing what it was like in St. John’s immediately after the Ocean Ranger tragedy. I would have liked more of that. For me, February ultimately fails because it does not deliver on that promise.

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11 Responses to “February, by Lisa Moore”

  1. Isabel Says:

    How sad that it didn’t stay in Newfoundland.

    But thanks for introducing her works to me.

  2. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Hm.

    Interesting Kevin, that second quote didn’t work at all for me, it seemed ultimately a bit contentless. What, other than that New York is a large and heterogeneous city, does it say?

    It’s also very romantic, I would imagine most street people were neither illiterate with lice or brilliant, meticulous and saintly. I would guess too that few saw ghosts. Taking such extremes suggests a shallowness of vision, a lack of real insight, a lack one might say of depth.

    “Best of all, they knew the scope of a single lifetime and how not to make a mark.” is particularly meaningless, and again it’s very romantic. If they are anything, they are most certainly not simply a “they”.

    I’m happy for her success, but I think I’ll check in when she writes a more focused book, I suspect my patience for this one would have been less than yours was Kevin.

    Or it may be my long hours at work these past few weeks are making me churlish, who can say? An excellent review in any case Kevin, I felt I had a good feel for what in the work would draw me in, the episodes with Helen, and what would not and I think too if my tastes departed from yours here (which I think they don’t) I’d be well placed now to form my own view.

  3. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Thanks for the comment, Max. I did put that second quote in because I feel it does illustrate some rather undisciplined writing which I think is all too prevalent in the book. I do think Moore has the potential to be quite a good novelist, based on the larger themes she chooses to address. I don’t think she has realized that potential yet.

  4. Esther Silverman Says:

    I enjoyed your review of the book. It is the only one I will be reading since it is very accurately voices how I feel.

    Unfortunately, I am enjoying the topic of the novel much more than its actual contents. The writing is often sloppy and rambling. Was it even edited? I don’t want to be overly critical as I am only the reader and any published book must take some talent. I just think such a fine topic could have been handled with more care.

    And yet,it’s still a good read.

  5. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Your reaction is the same as mine — there is a lot of potential to this book but the author does not realize it.
    And I agree that it is still a good read, despite that failing.

  6. Colette Jones Says:

    After reading half of the Booker longlist so far, this one is in my top two. I really liked it. I must not think of the word “depth” in the same way as you do, as this novel doesn’t strike me as lacking in depth. The flitting from one place and time to another was surprisingly easy to follow and not distracting, and added to the book for me.

  7. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Colette: You are quite right that Moore does explore some of her themes in significant depth (or at least my memory is that she does — I haven’t reread the book). What I meant by being distracted by breadth was that she opens up a lot of story avenues that seem to be there more for convenience than development. I suspect a large part of that frustration is that her writing style — which many readers see as her greatest strength — very often grates on me.

    I will give February a reread if it makes the shortlist.

  8. February – Lisa Moore – Farm Lane Books Blog Says:

    [...] just have to acknowledge that writing which disturbs some readers like me is attractive to others. Kevin From Canada var linkwithin_div_class="linkwithin_hook"; var linkwithin_site_id = 79234; Share and [...]

  9. nancy roberts Says:

    I am only just beginning to make my way through the Booker longlist, and found this site while searching for more info on the extraordinary Damon Galgut whose “In a Strange Room” has absolutely blown me away. I’ve much enjoyed the posts and was particularly heartened by the David Mitchell entry b/c so much of his earlier work has meant so much to me. But I can’t agree with your assessment of Lisa Moore’s “February.” Can’t help but think that you are applying the wrong standards, looking thru the wrong lenses and entirely missing the novel’s beauty, its heat and its light.
    The depiction of Helen’s grief, her wonderful relation with her sister, the way the characters speak to each other. I loved the book and the characters lived on in my mind for days afterward.

  10. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Nancy: Thank you for commenting. And my remarks on February are only my opinion and I would be the first to admit that I might well be wrong — thank you for offering another view. The best ways that blog reviews work — and why comments are so important — is when other readers show why the original writer of the review (that would be me) is way off base.

  11. Max Cairnduff Says:

    I read this today Kevin: http://shigekuni.wordpress.com/2010/09/15/lisa-moore-february/ It’s shigekuni’s thoughts on the same novel. I thought they might interest you.

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