Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Sylvanus Now by Donna Morrissey

As part of our ‘Wilderness Week‘ series:

Sylvanus Now is a fisherman, living in Newfoundland in the 1950s, ‘poor at book learning’, but who knows and loves this savage sea and land. ‘Undoubtedly, as a feathered creature shapes and grows into its habitat, so was he woven into the fabric of this land.’ One evening, glimpsing the proud and distant Adelaide through the window at a dance, he falls instantly and deeply in love. But Adelaide only dreams of escape, escape from the poverty, misery and drudgery of life in the small outport of Ragged Rock. Despite her strong academic abilities Adelaide is forced to leave school to work on the flakes – where the fish caught by the men is salted and preserved – and contribute to the income of her large, unruly family. Knowing that education or money are the only ways out of this life she despises, Adelaide resents bitterly the closing of this door.

Sylvanus is everything Adelaide scorns, a simple fisherman who lives across the bay in an even smaller grouping of houses, Cooney Arm. When Sylvanus courts her, promising her a house of her own and guaranteeing that she will never have to salt another fish, she succumbs to his charm and the temptation of getting away from her ugly, over-run home and back-breaking work. But Adelaide’s anger at the world has not subsided and her heart continues to rebel against this enforced destiny.

This novel is the story of their love but it is also much more that that. It is the story of a woman coming to terms with the world around her, making choices and finding her way.

It is the story of two people struggling to find each other while the world around them is evolving with small, imperceptible but significant changes. Huge trawlers from all over the world are coming to pillage the rich Newfoundland fishing waters. The industry is moving away from the small individual fisherman catching and salting his catch to crews trawling the ocean’s bottom, freezing onboard and delivering fresh fish to the factories.

Sylvanus Now is peopled with memorable characters; Eva, Sylvanus’s mother who lost her husband and eldest son to the sea; Suze, who insists on being Adelaide’s friend no matter how often Adelaide pushes her away; Manny and Jake, Sylvanus’s two brothers who, along with Sylvanus, try to find a place for themselves in the uneven battle against the trawlers. With clear-eyed humanity, Donna Morrissey has managed to capture the extraordinary in ordinary people.

Throughout the novel, the wild, unfriendly Newfoundland landscape and seascape is the enormous, inescapable canvas on which the human drama is painted, influencing all human action and choice. There is an inextricable bond between the people and their enviroment giving them a sense of proportion and belonging even if they are ‘little more than a drop of rain before his immersion into that great sea.’

‘The sea was a dirty grey crashing upon the rocks. Soon with the failing light, and aside from the sparkles of plankton rippling like stars long the catacomb shoreline, she would be black. But he didn’t need to see her. Like the land, she, too, had been imprinted into his brain. He knew her every fit, her every calm – from her ripples as she stirred with the first breath of morning into wavelets as the breeze taunted her further. Best of all, her laziness beneath an easy wind, how her long, slow swells lent a greater buoyancy to his boat. And he knew, too, how quickly those swells could deepen and be whipped into twenty-foot peaks by squalling winds, and how to get the hell home afore those peaks crested and toppled, toppling him and his boat, too, if he were too heavy with fish.’

Donna Morrissey’s prose is a thing of joy. It is exuberant, distinctive, full of the Newfoundland character and dialect.

But it is hard to dissect Sylvanus Now and indicate what works about it, in the same way that it’s hard to say exactly what it is that gives a bird in flight its grace. The setting, the story, the characters, the prose all combine to create, quite simply, a beautiful novel.

Penguin Books Canada (May 2005), 332 pages, ISBN-10: 0143014250

13 comments on “Sylvanus Now by Donna Morrissey

  1. Mhairi
    April 22, 2008

    Ooh. This is plainly my sort of book. You make it sound irresistible, Mary.

    Great review. 🙂

  2. Lisa
    April 23, 2008

    This one sounds beautiful. I very much like the sound of the prose.

    The fish-salting stuff worries me a bit. Just the smell of a tuna sandwich makes me want to spew, and a dead fish on TV leaves me a bit faint. I suppose I could skim the fish-salting passages. I blame my fish phobia on my brothers constantly bringing home (evidently only half-dead) pollock that would miraculously resurrect and start flapping about the kitchen. Until they met the mallet… 😦

  3. Jackie
    April 23, 2008

    Very evocative review, Mary, the last paragraph is especially poetic. This sounds really good, I like the difficult love story & the ‘landscape as character’ aspects. I’ve got to find this one at the library.
    The cover is strange too, don’t you think? What are those things in the photo? I’m guessing rain slickers, but I’m probably way off. Whatever it is bears a strong resemblance to bats, which adds a definite atmosphere to the cover.

  4. Mhairi
    April 23, 2008

    I think you’ll find it’s drying fish, Jacks …

  5. Jackie
    April 24, 2008

    Ah, I see. That’s their tails up by the clothesline, which obviously isn’t a “clothes” line, is it? Well, now I’m kinda embarrassed, but I really couldn’t figure out what it was. Just having a ninny moment. lol

  6. marygm
    May 1, 2008

    Yes, Jackie, they are drying fish. And I do hope you all read this book. It’s really great and I’d love to hear what you think if you do read it.

    Mary

  7. donna morrissey
    July 28, 2008

    Yup, they’re fish. thank you, Mary, I’m your number one fan (-:
    Donna Morrissey
    ps, the sequel to SN will be released in September of this year. A sequel, but alas, no fish, just oil rigs. no joke….

  8. Moira
    July 29, 2008

    Hello Donna …

    (Mary isn’t around at the moment.)

    Thank you for dropping by! Mary’s passed Sylvanus Now on to me … because it sounds just up my street.

    Oil rigs. Really?

  9. marygm
    July 5, 2009

    Donna,

    I’ve only just seen your comment. (As Moira said, I had a long absence from VL) I don’t know if you’ll read this after all this time but I’m honoured that you dropped by. As is obvious, I love your writing. I also read Kit’s Law which I thought was great too but in my opinion is pipped at the post by Sylvanus. I will definitely be getting your new book.

    Keep writing.

    Mary

  10. SanDee
    July 14, 2010

    A librarian suggested this book to me to read, and indeed it was very well written. However, she told me one of the themes in the book is the value of life. I have only recently remembered that I am still in need of finding the answer. Unfortunately, the librarian has retired. I’m hoping someone could help me. I also know one of the other themes is about the industry. I really like this book!

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  13. Reshana
    June 6, 2013

    Read it! I had to read it for my english class and to be honest, at first i didnt like it, the thought of a book on fishing seemed boring but as i read i found it really interesting! I found myself not being able to put it down!

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This entry was posted on April 22, 2008 by in Entries by Mary, Fiction: general, Fiction: literary and tagged , , , , , .

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Acknowledgment

  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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