Glass Boys (Douglas & McIntyre, 2011), Nicole Lundrigan’s fourth novel, is being reprinted next month in the US. Lundrigan is originally from Newfoundland, where Glass Boys, an example of “Newfoundland Gothic,” is set. Here’s the description (from Goodreads):
With vivid and unflinching prose, Nicole Lundrigan has created a riveting and deeply human saga of the persistence of evil and the depths and limits of love.
When Roy Trench is killed in a drunken prank gone wrong, his brother Lewis sees blood on the hands of the man responsible: the abusive alcoholic, Eli Fagan. Though the courts rule the death an accident, the event opens a seam of hate between the two families of Knife’s Point, Newfoundland.
Desperate to smother the painful past with love, Lewis marries Wilda, and the pleasure he takes in their two children — Melvin and Toby — recalls the happier days of his childhood with Roy. But as he watches his small family fracture, the darkness of the past begins to cloud the present, leading Lewis back to Eli Fagan — and his watchful stepson, Garrett Glass.
In the style of Newfoundland literature, established by Michael Crummey and Lisa Moore, Glass Boys is the haunting story of an unforgivable crime that brings two families to the brink.
Glass Boys is beautifully, if disturbingly, written. Characters speak in Newfoundland dialect. Here’s an early example, the Trench brothers, Roy and Lewis, getting drunk on home-brewed potato vodka one afternoon:
“Only thing that’s going to fix me, now, is a good woman.”
“And where’s you going to find a woman willing to take on that type of labor?”
“What type of labor?”
“You, that’s what.”
“They be lining up once I put my sign out.”
“Yeah, clamoring for cruel and unusual punishment. She’d have to have some awful strong stomach on her.”
“Some broads go in for that.”
“The only broad that’s going to fall for your charms, now, is Nellie.”
“Oh, yes,” Roy reached down, rubbed Nellie’s head with vigorous strokes. Leaned and poured an ounce into Nellie’s water and she hoisted her fat trunk off the floor, clicked a few steps, lapped. “That’s all you’ll be having, too, Miss Nellie. Don’t you be looking for more. We’re the ones wants to be slobbering around on all fours. You’re already there.”
Shortly after, Roy is dead at the hands of Eli Fagan, and the war between the Trenches and Fagans, including the next generation, is on. This is a novel about family and about its impact — usually negative — on a person’s outlook and prospects. The excerpt is a good example of why I didn’t enjoy this novel: even the simple act of petting the family dog is relayed with a kind of negativity. Something that could potentially be a heartwarming little movement is described in terms that invite reader distaste.
Virtually everyone who has reviewed this book recognizes that it is (a) well written, and (b) dark. I found it to be so unrelentingly depressing I had a hard time getting through it, and would not have pushed through to the end if the publisher hadn’t sent it to me. In particular, one of the POV characters is a pedophile, a subject about which I personally prefer not to read. Other reviews marvel at the way Lundrigan refuses to allow the reader to hate even seemingly evil characters. This is helped by the fact that Glass Boys is written from the point of view of at least six different characters. I regret that the compelling and unusual setting and the lovely prose could not overcome my dislike for this kind of writing that unearths the darkness in every corner of every thing from the human psyche to the human form to inanimate objects and nature itself. As always, your mileage may vary.
Here’s a more positive spin from The National Post:
Everyone has a history, and this novel is built on that premise. It highlights how, nine times out of 10, the things that shape people are beyond them. The effect is that while we won’t forgive her characters, we understand them, and few writers have the skill required to make despicable characters hard to hate. Likewise, Lundrigan’s “good guys” are flawed enough to feel human.