The Shipping News

E. Annie Proulx

Read April 2005

Annie Proulx's book reads like a weather report capsule summary: grey, laden, overcast, and oppressive. This is a book about how people used to have give, and about locations that can destroy the rigidity that's taken its place. As the suppleness returns to their souls, their bodies are transformed into something more muscular, stronger. There is a dark comic element to the book, in the names of the characters and in the Onion-like headlines; the tragedy could as well be summed up in the names of the rocks off Newfoundland.

The book's character is established on a striking foundation of epigrams for each chapter. These quotations are knot descriptions from Ashley's Book of Knots. Only a strong author would have the courage to juxtapose such remarkable descriptions against her own, and only a talented one would be able to draw strength from these excerpts. To my taste, in this alone lies the book's genius.

The book winds on, growing ever darker and denser. At first I found this stifling; then I was in awe of Proulx's ability to create such a smothering blanket with mere words. This annoyed me, because I hadn't wanted my attention shifted from the book to the author. But the eventual transformation of the protagonist, Quoyle, which she accomplishes in a few dazzlingly sparse sentences, felt like a breakthrough, and reminded me of the iridescent prose in Grapes of Wrath that describes the Joads' first view of California. In that moment, Proulx had gone from Richard Russo to John Steinbeck.