Archive for the ‘A Blessed Snarl’ Category

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Samuel Thomas Martin is possessed of the ability to spin a good yarn—and also to plumb the depths. In his novels and short fiction he marries canny and satisfying storytelling with a rich and sympathetic investigation of his characters’ interior worlds, all lovingly and convincingly grounded in the land- and seascapes of his native Canada. His critically acclaimed first novel, A Blessed Snarl, is a family saga worthy of the Old Testament. It explores the unraveling of a man driven to the edge of a continent, back to his childhood home on a spare, demanding island of Newfoundland, where he wrestles with matters of marriage, forgiveness, religious calling, and faithfulness. He wants to live the kind of life his grandparents had; his wife finds their new life in a remote community stifling, and eventually reacts calamitously. It’s to Martin’s credit as a writer that while we find the main character’s ambition sympathetic, even admirable, her response to their isolation feels no less understandable. Martin’s short stories, collected in This Ramshackle Tabernacle, are also populated with men on the verge. His currency is the tension between the past and the future, loyalty and ambition, courage and desperation, art and pragmatism. Over and over, what draws him is the clash of the old world and the modern one—a war played out through technologies, values, manners, and landscapes.

You can read an excerpt from “Running the Whale’s Back,” part of Samuel’s new book A Blessed Snarl, featured in IMAGE issue 72 here.


Christian Courier Review

by Cathy Smith

(Originally Published 24 Sept. 2012)

The epigraph of Samuel Thomas Martin’s novel, A Blessed Snarl, lays down the paradox in one thick stroke: “In Newfoundland nature is a blessed snarl, humans an imposition.” For Martin’s characters, yes, Newfoundland is a knife, scaling them like so many “fish washed up on a rock,” frantically flopping about for salvation. The Rock with its “fanged north coast” is a harsh landscape; the Atlantic, “terrifying, frothing where it gnaws at the jagged shoreline.” This isn’t Ontario, warns a cop: “You hit a moose here at that speed and its ass will take your head clear off.” The austere topography becomes a metaphor for life, where characters and readers alike struggle to find hope in the darkness, where, as in one of Rembrandt’s paintings, the flickering light of a candle seems a hopelessly frail defense against the gathering gloom.

Rev. Patrick Wiseman, “strangely sure-footed in his Sunday shoes,” is as fervent as the original Irish saint. He moves his wife Anne and his son Hab from Ontario to Newfoundland to pastor a Pentecostal church in a suburb called, of all things, Paradise. His father-in-law, Gurney Gunther, also a preacher, tells Patrick, “Newfoundland was once the Pentecostal capital of Canada, you know,” he himself having performed miracles of healing, including, it is said, having raised his daughter Anne from the dead. But as Patrick gets caught up in the busyness of New Life Church, his family falls apart, despite their faith heritage. Anne leaves him for a high school crush; Hab moves in with his girlfriend Natalie. Patrick is left dazed, exiled by his own, like Jeremiah or David or Absalom, not able to make “sense of his life without seeing it enmeshed in the biblical story.”

Natalie works in a group home, terrorized by a psychotic resident. She drinks and pops pills to stave off her anxiety and to deaden tragic memories. Her roommate Gerry, a writer, is also haunted by his history. Inflamed by those long-ago wounds, Gerry commits an appalling crime. Patrick’s estranged father, Des, communes with the Virgin Mary in his cabin, her visage materializing from a creosote stain on the wall. An old secret excoriates his soul, the guilt still not expunged after decades of sobriety. But these characters are not grotesque; you sense that Martin pities them and is keenly aware of their worth, their individuality lovingly outlined like faces in a Van Gogh portrait.

Martin’s debut work, This Ramshackle Tabernacle, was a finalist for the 2010 Winterset Award and for the 2011 ReLit Award for Short Fiction. A Blessed Snarl, his sophomore effort, corroborates his talent. There’s careful weight in the description and dialogue, but the plot moves briskly through a typically Canadian ordinariness. Anne drives on the 401 from London towards Hamilton. Patrick, Hab and a stranger take shelter together during a vicious storm. Conversations are littered with the profanity you hear on the street. All so very Canuck.

Fair warning: the language offends. As it should. Wyndham Lewis once remarked testily, “If I write about a rotting hill, it’s because I despise rot.” Here, too, the blunt obscenities serve to confront, to underscore that something stinks. Similarly, Martin’s locales are unflinchingly gritty, degradation slouched up against libraries and coffeehouses. But, like overlapping leaflets on a graffitied wall, poignant questions about God are plastered on the same page as  vulgarity and despair. And that could be the very blessing of the snarl. In trouble, you look for help. Hab pinpoints his own need simply: “He wants to share a meal with people who sit around a table and talk. He wants a glass of wine, and for God to answer his prayers.”

Literature as canvas
The novel is painterly, patiently-applied imagery colouring in the story behind the story. A fishing motif arises naturally from the East Coast setting. When Anne knocks on the front door of her Facebook lover, she is overcome, “like something gutting her, like a fillet knife in a fish’s belly.” When the rendezvous reveals a bitter truth, she “felt like a fish hooked through the gills ….” In happier times, she had taught her nephew Kyle to catch muskie, but once he had unexpectedly snagged a ling, a strange north-water cod that her father called a “dirty fish and not much sought after by real fishermen.” The battle to land that mystery fish is an iconic memory for Anne, but also for the reader who catches traces of Jesus inviting fishermen to be “fishers of men,” faint suggestions of just how “dirty” those fish are, how nasty the fight to reel them in.

Fire is another evocative image, one that mesmerizes Natalie as a photographer. But after she survives a harrowing tenement blaze in which twenty-three lives are lost, she becomes unhinged: “It seems unreal, the fire, even now, after replaying it over and over in her head, trying to separate it from her imaginings of Hell and her ten thousand photos, lost, of fire and furious light.” She recalls that it happened on Ash Wednesday, thousands walking the streets of Toronto “marked with the sign of the cross.” Again, obliquely, Jesus is present, an uncomfortable juxtaposition. Christ and crisis, side by side.

As a child Natalie had once heard Gurney Gunther preach about “fighting fire with fire,” constrasting “Holy Spirit fire that purifies against hellfire that destroys.” River, her schizoid client, is a pyromaniac who’s already burned up a shed and plans to do worse. Natalie gets twisted up in his malevolence. And there’s Martin’s subtlety again – nudging us to see in that bond between Natalie and River our own kinship with the damaged and the hurting. How different is Natalie from River, really? Gerry discovers that he shares the same last name with his victim, the neighbourhood drunk. How much separates these two characters from one another? The last chapter features a literal conflagration and a whisper of rebirth. The name Natalie, after all, comes from the Latin word for “Christmas Day.”

I can be critical. Friends who raved about The Help were surprised I was blasé about it. I loved Mary Lawson’s first book, Crow Lake; I found her second, The Other Side of the Bridge, predictable and disappointing. But when I read a thoughtful novel like A Blessed Snarl, I simply stand and applaud. I might even be tempted to call Martin’s accomplishment anointed.

Quill and Quire Review

by Alex Good

“They fuck you up, your mum and dad,” the poet tells us. This sad fact of life is comprehensively borne out by Samuel Thomas Martin’s debut novel. Set in Newfoundland, it tells the story of several generations of families entangled in a damaging human “snarl.”

Patrick, a Pentecostal preacher, has recently returned home, in part to patch things up with his father. Patrick’s wife, Anne (herself a preacher’s daughter), horrified at the prospect of a long sentence on the Rock, runs back to Ontario. Their separation messes with the mind of their son, Hab, whose girlfriend, Natalie, lives with Gerry, an English Lit student and aspiring author whose father is a pedophile – another piece of family history with tragic repercussions. Rounding things out is River, another product of a dysfunctional background.


Read the rest of the review here.

Here’s a write-up of A Blessed Snarl

posted in Image Update

Issue #246 (July 18, 2012)


Samuel Thomas Martin’s debut novel dives right into the densest mysteries of life in relationship—the “blessed snarl” of its title. The novel is woven with opposing convictions: Catholicism and Protestantism, murder and innocence, the spirituality of art and of speaking in tongues—a warp and weft that is pulled tight by anger and let loose again by grief. All this set into an icy Newfoundland landscape (where Martin lives) that wreaks its own chaos on its inhabitants. When Patrick Wiseman, a Pentecostal minister, moves to the rocky island to start a church plant with his wife, Anne, and college-age son, Hab, old wounds begin to surface. One is the unhappiness that drives Anne to begin a Facebook affair with her old high school crush; one is the crime that Patrick’s father, a latent Catholic mystic, may or may not be covering up. The stories of the Wiseman family overlap with several first-person narrators: Natalie, Hab’s love interest, whose childhood faith was incinerated in a fatal apartment fire; and her roommate Gerry, a self-destructive writer tormented by his father’s crimes. Fire appears again and again—as a destructive force of nature and as a metaphor for the kindling of the Holy Spirit that Patrick continually seeks. There is a deep sense of the intermingling of sin and holiness in A Blessed Snarl: relationships are like “broken hinges,” swinging back and forth from love to hurt, connected at the root. Martin’s fiction is reminiscent of that of Melanie Rae Thon—both writers craft prose that filters light into the darkest, most desperate narratives and picks up glints of enduring hope. Despite the heaviness of the material, Martin’s fine hand with characterization makes moments of longed-for reunion ring true: “But the smile on Hab’s face and his arm-waving makes Patrick think that his son is okay with his awkwardness and lame stories—his failure. That Hab loves him despite everything. That there is still a chance he might be saved.”

Formed by Fire

by Tara Bradbury

The Telegram (St. John’s)

14 July 2012


“Sometimes you need the distance to be able to see more clearly,” says Samuel Thomas Martin. It’s a philosophy he’s learned the hard way, and a theme that could be applied to his new novel.

Martin, author of the BMO Winterset Award-shortlisted collection of short stories, “This Ramshackle Tabernacle,” has just had his first novel, “A Blessed Snarl,” published by Breakwater Books.

The book isn’t without some heavy subject matter: Patrick Wiseman, a Pentecostal pastor, moves back to Newfoundland with his wife, Anne, and son, Hab, to start a new church.

Anne leaves him for a man she met on Facebook and Hab moves in with his girlfriend, Natalie, a girl with an alcohol problem and a fiery past.

While Patrick deals with the loss of his marriage and a confrontation with his father — a Catholic who may or may not be covering up an old crime — Hab has troubles of his own with Natalie. Hab begins to wonder about her when a woman is nearly burned alive in a house fire.

The novel started out as a series of short stories, based not around Patrick, but Natalie — and the idea for her was inspired by two real-life events.

When Martin, an Ontario native, and his wife, Samantha, moved to St. John’s, the moving truck shipping their possessions to Newfoundland caught fire. The couple lost most of their belongings.

“We had to sort through insurance stuff, and what wasn’t fire damaged was smoke damaged, so that was a big ordeal, dealing with that and all the emotions tied up with something like that when you move,” Martin says. “We had to start at ground zero. I think we lost 70 or 80 per cent of our stuff. That experience was percolating, but I didn’t want (the stories) to be about my experience. I wanted to draw on what I knew about it emotionally.

“A friend of ours came to visit us from New York and she had just had her tenement building in Chinatown burn, and she actually lost everything. We were sharing stories and then I asked her if I could use that idea.”

From that inspiration came Natalie, the right side of the story. Martin then began searching for the left half, a character who was as far removed from Natalie as possible, but whose life could still intersect hers.

Having grown up in the Pentecostal church and having recently read Marilynn Robinson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book “Gilead,” a fictional autobiography of a dying pastor who is writing letters to his young son, Martin came up with Patrick.

“I’m very interested in what people believe and how that changes,” Martin says. “There’s this kind of idea that the only plot arc in terms of faith is if people have it and lose it and become enlightened. I know a lot of very interesting stories about people who begin a faith journey in a certain community and they don’t wind up there. They’re either forced out or they choose to leave, or sometimes the community collapses on them, but they’re looking for something beyond themselves. I wanted to balance that with people doing that in a secular context.”

Martin wrote 16 short stories for the book, in a mix of tenses and points of view. At the last minute, and after getting feedback from different readers, he pulled it back from the publisher and restructured it. He turned his series of mini-canvases into one big painting, so to speak.

“I said, ‘If it’s going to be a novel, I’m going to put it all in third person and follow the storylines as I have them.’ It actually became more fun at that point,” Martin says. “I lined up the small canvases and I could see what colour needed to flow into the next one. I just created enough distance that I could add in a bit, and I think it became more richly textured.”

Martin had originally planned to create a sort of illuminated manuscript, combining his writing with artwork. Because of the costs involved, he later settled on using images instead of chapter titles, as a visual metaphor and a way of illustrating the story in each chapter. There are four: a Gerald Squires lithograph called “Winged Torso,” Jim Maunder’s “Man Nailed to a Fish,” an image from Boyd Chubbs’ ink drawing series “I Make a Covenant with my Eyes” and a fiery photograph, taken by Martin, called “Guy Fawkes Night,” taken Nov. 5, 2010.

“I had Natalie in my mind at that point, and I thought it was a picture she would take,” Martin explains.

“A Blessed Snarl” has been officially launched, and is available in bookstores. Next week, Martin will hold signings at Chapters, Coles, Costco and other independent bookstores, and an Atlantic Canadian tour is planned.

He’s begun working on his next book, another novel, which he says is set on a ficticious island off the north coast of Newfoundland and is inspired by a recent artist residency he completed on Fogo Island.

At the end of the month, however, he and Samantha are packing the moving truck again, this time headed to Orange City, Iowa, where he’ll start a job teaching creative writing at the local university.

The couple has talked about what would happen if the truck caught fire this time around, and have come to the conclusion that something like that can’t happen twice.

“The other conclusion was that even if it does, we’ve been through it,” Martin says. “It would still be shocking, but we know that we could survive it.”


A Culture on Fire 

by Brian Dijkema

The Cardus Daily

(13 July 2012)


What kind of culture will Pentecostalism produce? There has been a lot of talk lately among scholars about the rise of Pentecostalism as a global force. Much of it is focused on the implications of Pentecostalism on the church, the state, and the economy—sociological talk—but not, to my admittedly limited knowledge, little is focused on the impact that Pentecostalism will have on arts culture.

We know a little bit about what Catholic culture looks like. We have Caravaggio, and Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh, and Flannery O’Connor, and Shusaku Endo. We know a bit about Reformed culture too. There’s Shakespeare, and Rembrandt, and Makoto Fujimura, and Marilynne Robinson. But we don’t really know what to expect when it comes to Pentecostalism’s effect on anything, let alone its effect on literature, or painting, or film. It has a way of blowing our categories apart.

But there are signs that Pentecostalism is beginning to lick at the edges of culture. No, I’m not talking about Kris Allen (who?). I’m talking about a new novel by Sam Martin.

Martin’s second novel, A Blessed Snarl, also sets categories on fire. It’s a Canadian novel. It is set in Newfoundland, with its fog, sadness, and joy, and from Ontario, with stops in Hamilton, Toronto, and Peterborough. All of the characters lives are tightly woven through the threads of these towns, and dyed by their cultural landscapes. In this way I was reminded of Alice Munro and Alisdair MacIntyre. The comparison isn’t too far-fetched. Martin is a top-notch writer. Despite moments of being too self-aware (I blame his Ph.D program for this), the novel is masterfully woven, and its metaphors—like fog parting on the Newfoundland coast—reveal great beauty, and almost aways show something new.

But its characters dwell on faith with a complexity and knowledge that one doesn’t usually catch in Can-lit. I suppose this makes it a Christian novel.

A Christian novel? Its characters are far too flawed, the story far too complex, and its threads too loose and frayed to fit into what publishers traditionally place in this category. A quick glance at two of the protagonists—Patrick, and Natalie—would make Janet Oke’s characters blush, hike up their petticoats, and head for their cabins in horror.

When I tried to categorize the book after reading it, I found that Greene and Waugh first came to mind. Perhaps it is the centrality of wine to the story line. But again, the comparison is not a neat fit. Martin’s contemplation of faith and its role in the lives of Canadians involves much more fire, oil, and ashes than I’ve read before. Characters long not just to know God, but to be consumed by him. And much of the book is a contemplation of the struggles faced when those embers burn low, or seem to be snuffed by a combination of ocean spray and wind.

Many have noted that Pentecostalism is a cross-denominational phenomenon. That is, Pentecostal tendencies appear in churches as diverse as Roman Catholic to non-denominational and everything in between. I’ve decided that Martin’s novel is best categorized as Pentecostal in that way. It demolishes categories, while refining them. It is a Canadian novel; a postmodern novel; a Christian novel; a good novel.

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.