Thursday, November 20, 2008

Reader's Diary #416- Anthony De Sa: Barnacle Love

Somewhat like David Bezmozgis's Natasha and Other Stories in scope (connected stories about an immigrant family's experience in Canada), I found De Sa's more engaging. His is the story of the Rebelos, a Portuguese family from the Azores, that eventually ends up in Toronto. The first half of the book revolves around Manuel Rebelo, who has convinced himself that his obsession with Canada is about fulfilling a dream. Before long, however, it becomes apparent that Manuel's dream is ill-defined at best, and Canada really represents an escape (both from an overbearing, abusive mother and from memories of a pedophile priest). The latter half of the book moves to Antonio, Manuel's son, who struggles with his Portuguese heritage and more importantly, with a father who has not amounted to anything extraordinary, despite a few lame attempts.

At times Barnacle Love, as you've probably guessed, can be a downer. Most troubling for me was the inability to really understand Manuel. I was taking it as shoddy writing, that he wasn't really defined as a character, until I realized that it was Manuel's lack of real purpose and his self-delusion, that made him appear that way. If Manuel was really as two-dimensional, as I had first suspected he was, I wouldn't have found myself rooting for him despite his obvious flaws.

I also enjoyed comparing Antonio and Manuel. With Manuel, who wanted to get away from his mother, and Antonio who sometimes seemed loyal to a fault to his father, the two made easy contrasts. When Manuel was a young man, during his first stint in Newfoundland, he watches a moose being gutted with hardly more than a passing thought. Yet when Antonio watches his father and friends slaughter a pig, he is transfixed by the blood and winds up vomiting at the sight of the guts. But perhaps most interesting is the way De Sa tells Manuel's story in the third person, but tells Antonio's in the first. The effect is a son who seems more psychologically substantial than his father. Could this be Manuel's dream of fulfillment manifesting itself in his son? Perhaps Barnacle Love is hopeful afterall.

The Soundtrack
1. Mar De Canal- Cesaria Evora
2. Nem As Paredes Confesso- Amalia Rodrigues
3. Runaway- Great Big Sea
4. Força- Nelly Furtado
5. O Canada

Barnacle Love (2008) was published by Random House and shortlisted for the Giller Prize.


Allison said...

Although as you say it does seem like bit of a downer at times, it certainly sounds intriguing. A good winter read.

Wanda said...

Actually, based on your review, this sounds like one I'd rather like, another one for my tbr list. I don't mind a downer, it makes the more comedic novels that much more appreciated. So, what do you think, did it deserve it's spot on the short list?

John Mutford said...

Allison: Perhaps I should have said in the review, but there are ample doses of comic relief (albeit sometimes dark) as well.

Wanda: That's tough for me to say without reading a lot of Canadian fiction that was published this year. If I was to do a short-list from all the books I've read this year, definitely.

John Mutford said...

Kailana's review is here: