Semper letteris mandate
The word “lyrical” comes unbidden to mind when reading Gaff Topsails, which is unfortunate, because lyrical generally means “so full of itself it squeaks going around corners.” Lyrical books tend to be flowery, turgid, declamatory, and above all, purple to the point of staining delicate linens.
None of which is true for Gaff Topsails.
Patrick Kavanagh’s first novel is filled with the colourful and colloquial language of Newfoundland — not a vernacular one often associates with lyricism, yet here used to such fine advantage that it makes the rest of Canada seem inarticulate and tongue-tied.
In structure it is not unlike Joyce’s Ulysses. Set in a small Catholic outport about 50 years ago, it follows several people through a single day. A day that happens to be Sweetheart’s Day, or St. John the Baptits’s Day — the last day of school, and the day an iceberg lands on their shore. It is also the day several of these inhabitants will experience their own small epiphanies.
Some of the characters are revealed directly through their thoughts and experiences. Others we watch from the standpoint of an outside observer. And a few, one garrulous old woman in particular, come to us entirely through their running monologues.
There is no way to adequately summarise this book. It is a series of revelations. Some, such as the story of Jonny the light, are already well-known to the inhabitants of the village, but revealed to the reader only over the course of the book. Others, like the growing gulf that separates Michael Barron from his peers, and the underlying cause of this separation, dawn on reader and character simultaneously.
More importantly, it is a book of people and their internal worlds. Joyce, of course, has already shown us the dramatic difference that may exist between two people’s experience of the same incident, but Kavanagh turns this now almost-trite observation into a warm and affectionate appreciation of humanity.
It is also a warm and affectionate appreciation of the little rituals, superstitions, beliefs and manners that make up daily life.
As Mary sets out for her last day of school, she stops along the way to check the scarf she spread on a rock the night before. To her disappointment, she finds it to be dry. Although never expressly stated, this is obviously a fortune-telling technique, almost definitely involving her future mate.
Michael Barrons’ friends, Wish and Gus, are obsessed with the seemingly endless ways in which things, especially boats, can get “jinked.”
Keven Barron, Michael’s younger brother, draws ritualistic assurance from church, in which he is a dedicated altar boy.
Johnny the Light, a drunken old relic who, many years previously, lost his fingers and sanity in an act of heroism (or whose loss of sanity led to his heroism), finds solace in searching for the ship that will take him and his mates home.
Out in a meadow a fat girl holds a dandelion under the chin of a red-haired girl while changing:
“Are you a witch, or are you a faery,
Or are you the wife of Timothy Cleary?”
Probably without any knowledge of the famous “burning of Bridget Clear,” as evidenced by the fact that Cleary’s name was actually Michael.
All of this may seem inordinately superstitious, but is really nothing more than a series of portraits of the way meaning manifests itself in our lives. In essence, this book is about experience, and the various narratives that give meaning to it. Familiarity, discovery, limits, and the breaking of limits are the stuff with which the author weaves his complex, yet utterly simple tapestry.
And in the centre of it all stands the iceberg, a towering, exotic monument from an alien landscape made of nothing more than common ice that will melt away over the next few days: the Gaff Topsails.