A Blessed Snarl

By Samuel Thomas Martin

“Your mum and dad,” the poet tells us, “fuck you up.” 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 to Newfoundland, it seems in part to patch things up with his father Des, a Catholic mystic with a shady past. 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, in turn, messes with the mind of their son, Hab, who shacks up with Natalie, an artist who has her own issues. Living with Natalie is Gerry, an English Lit student and aspiring author whose father is a pedophile – another piece of family history that has tragic repercussions. Finally, rounding things out is a delinquent named River, a cousin of Hab’s who is also the product of a dysfunctional background.

There is something naturalistic in Martin’s insistence on the inescapability of heredity and environment, and his emphasis on poverty and crime. But he handles these themes without being reductive, and the narrative has a skipping movement to it, making sudden jumps ahead, that is odd but effective despite the lack of a strong central story. Certain recurrent motifs, like fire, take on the force of a family curse, while the writing does a good job of evoking immediate perceptions and tracking mental states. A pair of underwear in a kitchen sink, for example, becomes an idée fixe of Gerry’s, while Natalie, fleeing a fire, smells smoke “acrid and thick, like vomit on a hot sidewalk.”

The novel manages to find sympathy for these characters while not disguising their serious failings. Anne and Natalie, in particular, come across as difficult to like. Still, as Hab is led to realize, family is a kind of emotional trap, and if he can’t forgive his mother or understand his girlfriend, he can’t stop loving them either.

This push-pull is also typical of several of the characters’ feelings toward Newfoundland. There are a lot of correspondences between the fiction of Canada’s East Coast and that of the American South, and this ambivalence – a desire to break free and escape, and a yearning to come home – is one of the most significant. Steeped in the voices, weather, art, economy, and spirituality of the place, Martin has written a novel very much in the Newfoundland grain.

Review first published in Quill & Quire, September 2012.

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