This was a very strange experience. A friend recommended Colony of Unrequited Dreams. She has always been right in the past so without any research I plunged right in. And while I cannot say I enjoyed reading the novel, I certainly could not let it go, and I still don’t understand why it got such a grip on me.
If I’d been reading a physical book I doubt I would have made it through — it runs on for 592 pages and Johnston sets himself a massive challenge by narrating it from the point of view of a really unattractive character. This is Joseph Smallwood, the first prime minister of Newfoundland as part of Canada. Now, I have never given much thought to the history of Newfoundland. Turns out it was an independent country until 1949 when, unable to maintain sovereignty (something of a luxury for a land with few natural resources and shockingly bad weather), it joined its large neighbor to the west. Smallwood was instrumental in bringing about “Confederation.”
He is one of those characters — one of those people — who is utterly incapable of moderating his own behavior to appeal to individuals. Over and over we witness him annoying, frightening, hounding, or alienating other characters. Yet his sheer drive and commitment allow him to endure not only physical hardship but wretched isolation. Which, I understand, are pretty much standard features in Newfoundland.
Johnston’s bright idea was to pair Smallwood with Sheilagh Fielding, known almost entirely by her last name. Where Smallwood is a runt, stunted by malnutrition, and perpetually animated by class resentment, Fielding is a big girl, born to St. John’s gentry, and a glib cynic from her schoolgirl days. Over and over we see the contrast between Smallwood’s single-minded drive and Fielding’s ironic commentary on his transparent ambitions. They are paired for life, like strands of a double helix, dipping in and out of each other’s lives.
Both Smallwood and Fielding are obsessed with history, the saga of Newfoundland in particular. She wants to write it: he wants to make it. Johnston interweaves various Newfoundland origin stories and published histories so that we get an array of ideas about how history is lived, written, told, and revised. All this against a background of the most forbidding geography. One of the great set-pieces involves Smallwood’s early venture onto a sealing ship that lost many men on the ice in a snowstorm. It’s an intensely lyrical riff on man’s struggle against nature, a venture Newfoundland never lets you forget.
So where, precisely, was the appeal in this tome? Johnston writes really well so that’s a source of pleasure. Fielding, the ironic drunken sidekick, is appealing. There’s a kind of car-crash fascination in Smallwood who grows ever more bumbling in human relations, yet whose ambition never flags. And I suppose there’s a certain fascination in the extreme quality of Newfoundland, a kind of National Geographic-style voyeurism. Certainly I’ll never think about the province the way I did before — but probably not more frequently.