Having achieved considerable success with his first novel, River Thieves, Michael Crummey has written a book that is equally stunning and compelling. The Wreckage is a truly epic, yet twisted, romance that unfolds over decades and continents. It engages readers on the austere shores of Newfoundland’s fishing villages and drags them across to Japanese POW camps during some of the worst events of the Second World War. Haunting, lyrical, and deeply intimate, Crummey’s language fully exposes his characters’ vulnerabilities as they struggle to come to terms with their guilt and regret over decisions made during their impulsive youths.
In the fishing villages of Newfoundland we come across an itinerant Wish Furey. He’s a drifter and a projectionist, traveling from island to island bringing films to isolated communities. A Catholic in a staunchly Protestant community, working with an alcoholic, gambling partner, Wish is immediately labeled an outsider. On Little Fogo Island, he spots a desirable young woman in the audience and embarks on an unwavering mission to possess her. Mercedes Parsons – Sadie – is equally infatuated and yields to Wish's advances as much as her chaste upbringing will allow.
Crummey masterfully captures the ferocity of the young romance, the coiled up sexual tension exploding in instances of pure pleasure and ending often in frustration. The pair can steal only scattered moments alone as Sadie’s mother puts up a formidable defense against Wish, whom she believes will bring only trouble. However intent he seems on winning Sadie, Wish's character remains mysteriously closed. He is painfully silent around her family, which only strengthens their mistrust. Crummey seems to purposefully disclose only the barest of Wish's intimate thoughts and motivations.
While the romance intensifies, Crummey casts his lovers in a wider shadow. He brings to life the Newfoundland coastline, its unforgiving waters, the religious fervor and prejudice of its inhabitants, their ceaseless work, and the collective anxiety about the burgeoning war.
Unable to defeat Sadie’s mother, and unable to quell his conscience after Sadie's breathless pleading, "Don't make a whore of me," Wish flees to St. John’s and enlists in the British army. Sadie embarks on a frantic pursuit only to find him gone. Defying her family she stays in the capital, building a new life, the reality of Wish's disappearance – the acute, constant ache of it – gradually settling in.
Wish lands somewhere in southeast Asia and then, finally, in a Japanese POW camp. He suffers agonizing torture under a particularly cruel guard known initially as the Interpreter. We have met the Interpreter already. Crummey has woven this man's narrative through the novel, slowly revealing the origins of his unique hatred toward the Canadian prisoners. Born in British Columbia, Nishino has experienced a harsh brand of discrimination. It is through Nishino that Crummey provides a chilling example of how prejudice can breed exceptionally brutal cycles of violence.
Crummey unveils the depths of his characters’ personalities with slow deliberation. The layers of their pain, suffering, and love are peeled back with each recounted memory as the novel makes its transition into contemporary times. With each memory that is unleashed the reader comes closer to understanding the choices the protagonists made, the consequences they endured, and their subsequent feelings of frustration and guilt.
Fifty years after Sadie’s flight from St. John’s, she returns to Newfoundland to scatter the ashes of her dead husband and collides with Wish whom she believed dead. Sadie reflects, “It was like being handed a photograph from a stranger’s collection, one more unexpected glimpse of that face when she thought her memories of it were complete.” Memories can be taken out, tampered with, much like the film of the projectionist.
It is here that Crummey cracks open Wish's character. There is a flood of revelations; his sexual exploits as a teenager, the bet made that he could conquer Sadie, Nishino's murder, and his own troubling reaction to it. It's a narrative coup. The reader is left, as Sadie is, stunned and grappling with these revelations and how our perceptions of his character have been altered. Wish is angry, sullen, and paralyzed with guilt. Yet he is still capable of love and being loved and Sadie is the only one left to remind him.
It is a testament to Crummey’s gifts as a novelist that he can flow quite easily through time, across landscapes, and between vastly different characters. He vividly captures the mental and physical anguish Wish experienced in the prison camps, and with calm lucidity explores the motives of a Japanese soldier whose actions seem inhumanly cold and calculating. Crummey toys with the readers’ sympathies, suggesting there are few distinctions between the enemy and us. He incorporates heartbreaking tragedy – the dropping of the atom bomb, lynchings in America, murderous revenge – to underscore the darker side of humanity. Crummey shows that we are capable of violence, but in the end he proves we are also capable of redemption, forgiveness, and can be led, unashamed, back to the ones we love.
From the Hardcover edition.
"synopsis" may belong to another edition of this title.
Born and raised in Newfoundland, Michael Crummey spent his early years moving from one mining town to another. He began in Buchans in the province’s interior then moved to Wabush, Labrador – a small town near the Quebec border. He was the second of four boys in a particularly tight-knit and raucous household.
Self-conscious of his literary aspirations, Crummey left for St. John's to study English at Memorial University. Undertaking an English degree was, he once reported, an attempt "to feel connected to the whole idea of writing without admitting to anybody what I wanted to do was write." Admitting your weakness, however, is the first step towards recovery. Crummey began writing poetry and in 1986 won his first award at Memorial University. In 1994, after years of publishing in magazines he won the inaugural Bronwen Wallace Award for Poetry, a national award for writers not yet published in book form. Appropriately he followed up with his first book of poetry Arguments with Gravity in 1996. Emergency Roadside Assistance and Hard Light came shortly after and his latest poetry title Salvage, appeared in 2002.
Not satisfied with poetry alone, Crummey tried his hand at fiction. It was a wise decision. In 1994, his first published fiction was a runner up in the 1994 Prism International Short Fiction Contest, and a story was selected for the Journey Prize Anthology in 1998. Flesh & Blood, his first collection of stories, appeared the same year.
His most notable achievemen – both critical and commercial – came with River Thieves published in 2001. Crummey wrote of his experience writing the novel, "I would have to admit I had no real idea what I was doing through most of it," and swore he would never attempt another. His blind effort was not without reward. The novel was a national bestseller and short-listed for the Giller Prize. It also made its way to publishers in the US, UK, and Europe.
Crummey happily broke his vow not to write another novel, and The Wreckage was published in August 2005.
Crummey lives in St. John's, Newfoundland.
From the Hardcover edition.
He was never dry.
Every day they abandoned field guns mired in mud. The tires and axles of ammunition carts disappeared in sludge and the shells for the guns still with them were carried by hand. Half a dozen men at the front of the column slashed a trail with machetes, the rainforest so densely organic, so humid and rank, it felt as if they were forcing their way through the tissue of a living creature. Soldiers lost their footing on exposed roots, on the slick ground, and they collapsed under their packs like marionettes cut free of strings. There was only river water to drink, and everyone in the company was miserable with dengue and with dysentery, men stepping out of the column to relieve themselves in the bush. Nishino thought the reek alone would be enough to give away their position.
Animals he would never see or know by name called and cawed in the trees. Only the birds came into view, hallucinatory flashes of colour dipping through the branches. The parrots picked up words and phrases from the soldiers and mimicked them. Hikoki hikoki sent the entire company face down into the foliage, listening for American planes.
They’d out-marched their rice rations and the soldiers were fed a little dried fish and crackers and hard candy at midday. Nishino sat beside Ogawa as they ate, and they picked through each other’s hair and clothing for fleas and biting ants and chiggers. Then Ogawa lay his head in Nishino’s lap and slept until the officers ordered them on.
He heard a voice calling “Yes sir!” and crouched defensively, swinging his rifle up to his waist, staring left and right.
Ogawa tilted his head. “Are you all right, Noburo?”
He heard the phrase repeated twice more before he realized it was a parrot calling from the forest. He let the rifle come down by his side and looked around at the other soldiers.
No one else had noticed. “Never mind,” he said.
At the end of the day’s march he went to Lieutenant Kurakake, who was sitting under a fold of canvas with maps spread across his thighs. The charts glowing with a yellow bioluminescent substance smeared on the surface for light. He stood to one side at attention.
“Yes?” the lieutenant said finally.
He hesitated. Bowed deeply. “I heard a parrot,” he said.
Kurakake looked up at him. “We have all heard them,” he said. “Endlessly,” he said.
“It was an English phrase I heard, Lieutenant.”
“Yes. I am certain of it.”
“What is your name, Private?”
“Nishino, sir. Noburo Nishino.”
“And what did this bird say to you, Private Nishino?”
“It said, ‘Yes sir.’ Several times.”
The lieutenant nodded slowly. He called to a company sergeant and ordered him to double the number of soldiers on sentry duty through the night. He nodded up to Nishino, dismissing him.
All the way back to the spot where Ogawa lay sleeping, he could feel the officer’s eyes following him.
Shortly before dark the next evening the soldiers crested a hill, breathing in open air blowing off a long grassy ridge a hundred feet below. The officers walked through the ranks, whispering, ordering them to dig in.
Nishino woke to the sound of the Americans talking among themselves below, their conversation carried up to him on the wind. Ogawa was still asleep, and Nishino lay quiet next to him, trying to pick words from the drift. Eased away from the boy finally to relieve himself in the trees. Covered his face as he crouched, shivering uncontrollably, his skin slick with sweat as the stink ran from him.
Lieutenant Kurakake was standing over Ogawa when Nishino came back. “Lieutenant,” he said and bowed.
He could smell a hint of something sweet in the air, something refined and so foreign to the place and condition he was in that he sniffed the air like a dog. Lieutenant Kurakake smiled at Nishino’s confusion, brought his hands from behind his back and passed across a small crystal bottle.
“My wife’s perfume,” Kurakake told him. “I wanted to have something of her with me.”
Nishino nodded, unsure what to make of the revelation, wary of the unexpected intimacy. Kurakake’s hair was greying at the temples, the bags under his eyes so dark they were almost black. He was older than any other officer in the field with them.
“You are not married,” Kurakake said.
Nishino shook his head.
“There is a woman at home? Someone is waiting for you?”
He looked briefly into Kurakake’s face, shook his head again. He returned the bottle of perfume.
Kurakake watched him a moment. “A story for another time,” he said. He looked down at Ogawa still motionless on the ground. The young man’s face even more childish in sleep. The officer made a dissatisfied noise in his throat. “This boy,” he said. “Chozo. He depends on you.”
“We help one another.”
Kurakake nodded dismissively. “What is it that is wrong with him?”
“I don’t know,” Nishino said. Though he understood exactly what the officer meant. There was something simple about Ogawa that made him seem younger even than his age.
The lieutenant made the same dissatisfied noise and nodded. Then turned and left them.
Nishino dozed half an hour more, waking occasionally to shift on the ground. Catching the faintest scent of perfume every time he brought his hands near his face.
The soldiers were given the last of the company’s food that afternoon, one can of sardines for every two men. He and Ogawa cleaned the oil from the can with their fingers. Nishino was hungrier after eating than before, and he felt the hunger sharpening an edge in him.
Ogawa stared down at the Americans. They moved about in the open, wearing only undershirts. Sunlight glinting off the dog tags around their necks. “I wonder what they’re saying.” He shook his head in disgust. “Sssss ssss sss. That’s all it sounds like to me.”
Nishino had removed his shoes and socks, splashing his feet with river water from the canteen and wiping them dry with his shirt. All but two of his toenails had blackened and fallen off. He said, “They’re too far off to make anything out.” Quickly added, “Even if you could speak the language.”
Ogawa smiled. “We’ll hear them up close soon enough,” he said.
The drone of aircraft billowed in off the ocean, and men on both sides paused to scan the horizon. Japanese bombers. A scurry of movement among the soldiers below, orders shouted. The planes dropping their payloads on the grassy ridge to soften the American defences.
From the Hardcover edition.
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