Joan Sullivan’s Review of “A Blessed Snarl”

Posted: July 7, 2012 in A Blessed Snarl
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A complex, but fluid read

A review of A Blessed Snarl by Joan Sullivan,

(published 9 June 2012, The Telegram, St. John’s)

_____

A Blessed Snarl is a very good description of the situation the characters in this well-written story find themselves in.

Through choice or accident, bloodline or romantic ties, they are in a snarl, caught up each other’s lives and decisions, tangled and caught by desires and histories they may not control, or even be aware of.

And the “blessed” part applies too, denoting something both cursed and sacred. The characters are in distress, but also fuelled, even uplifted, by their beliefs and commitments and quests for redemption.

The setting is a modern-day St. John’s. The climate is miserable, but social bonds sturdy and reinforced by notebooks and novels and bottles of Barefoot merlot and baguettes from Georgetown Bakery.

The hub characters are the resonantly named Wiseman family. Patrick, who was raised Catholic in Fawkes Cove, converted to evangelical Pentecostalism and became a preacher in Ontario. He married Anne, whose father, Gurney, was a renowned minister, celebrated for raising his daughter from the dead. They have a son, Hab, of university age.

After years in Peterborough, Patrick moves the family “home” to Paradise. He has high hopes that he’ll be a success with his new congregation, and Anne and Hab will like Newfoundland, and be happy. But it doesn’t work out. Anne is lonely, and in some emotional shock from the recent loss of an uncle and cousin, and she begins an online flirtation with a former high school classmate on Facebook.

Hab starts at MUN and quickly meets and is entranced by Natalie, who has just moved from Toronto. She shares a house on Merrymeeting Road with Gerry, who wants to be a writer, and Lisette, in from Bonavista Bay and determined to make a go of it as a downtown waitress.

“Winter comes on, and they fall into each other like kids into new snow. Hab helps Natalie find a job at a group home through Workopolis and she reads aloud to him from a book of poems he came across in the QEII Library, her body tucked behind his on the couch, his thumbs rubbing the arc of her feet, making her toes squirm inside rough-knit socks.

“They’re from Lisette’s nan, she says. Made from boiled wool.”

But this kind of tranquility doesn’t last. Many of the characters are troubled, or in trouble, and haunted by fathers and father figures. Gerry, for example, grew up in Buckmaster’s Circle, where everything was rough and poor, his father barely literate, and now an ex-con. He develops an affinity for Rod, who lives nearby in a basement apartment and collects recyclables. Gerry sometimes helps push his grocery cart along the streets, or treats Rod to a bottle of rum. But the images of his father and his neighbour get dangerously conflated in Gerry’s mind, and seem set to implode.

Natalie, too, is trying to efface her past. In Toronto, she was a photographer, particularly of flames, small blazes she would set herself. Then her apartment building was destroyed by a fire in which several residents died. Natalie more or less fled, leaving everything, including her art, behind. Now she has a new place and good friends, but it is taking a dangerous amount of wine and Ativans to get her through an average day.

All of them are linked and threatened by a boy named River, whose connections to each one are convoluted but lethal.

This brief description doesn’t do justice to A Blessed Snarl, which is complex but so skillfully composed it is an effortless read, and a gripping one. The dialogue is spot-on and events unfold with realism and momentum. It is unflinching with its rifling winds and unplowed sidewalks and grimy bathroom stalls, but it also holds the hint and promise of beauty.

Representations of several significant artworks, for example from Gerry Squires and Jim Maunder, are included, and their imagery is woven into the narrative. Always, there is a real care for language.

“Gerry remembers putting that note in a bottle, like they did in stories, and hurling it off a pier in the Battery by the Narrows. He had wanted it to smash on the rocks and sink, but it hit the water and floated away from him. Like a last prayer — like that old priest reading aloud from the Psalms when he went alone to that mass and passed the three men smoking on the steps in the shadow of the Virgin.”

A Blessed Snarl is a merging, even collision, of the high and low, saints and back alleys, bile and grace. It is crafted with compression and compactness. It shows a gritty urban world. But one where there is humour, generosity and mercy.

(Published 9 June 2012, The Telegram , St. John’s)

Joan Sullivan is a St. John’s-based journalist and editor of The Newfoundland Quarterly.

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