Lisa 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.