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Review: The Fortunate Brother is a bold departure for Donna Morrissey

Author Donna Morrissey

The Fortunate Brother
Donna Morrissey

Having set all six of her novels in and around the coastal Newfoundland communities where she was born and raised – their economic and cultural existence inextricably tied to the doomed cod fishery – you might say that Donna Morrissey has risked a certain amount of overfishing herself. Instead, she's honed her craft and taken heed of some justified criticism to produce substantive, elegiac, and, in the case of her latest, suspenseful work.

The Fortunate Brother is Morrissey's third novel about the Now family. The first, Sylvanus Now, had charted the struggles of its stalwart titular patriarch and his equally doughty wife, Addie. In What They Wanted, focus shifted to the Now's grown children Chris and Sylvie, who go to work in Alberta, where Chris is killed on an oil rig.

Those novels weren't particularly plot-driven. As an almost straight-up whodunit, The Fortunate Brother – the title referring not, of course, to the ill-fated Chris, but to his surviving younger brother Kyle – thus marks a surprising departure from its predecessors.

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It turns out Morrissey has a natural flair for the genre, though discovering this takes a bit of patience. Sadness and grief have dominated Morrissey's fiction, and life (she has acknowledged Sylvie and Chris as portrayals of herself and her brother, who died under similar circumstances), and they're omnipresent here as well, especially in the first 30 pages, which function as a recap but parse like a downer laundry list of tragedy and grief.

Three years after Chris's death, there's still blame (on Sylvie, now travelling the world) and guilt (on Kyle's part, for having encouraged Chris to go out West). But mostly there's the weighty silence and anger of his grieving parents. That still-raw event is now compounded: Addie has learned she has breast cancer and has threatened not to undergo treatment if Sylvanus keeps drinking.

It's when the dead body of an erratic local thug washes up at the foot of the Nows' wharf, about 60 pages in, that our entry into the novel's redoubtable web begins. The previous night, as Kyle left the bar where he'd been drinking off his mother's diagnosis, Clar Gillard, out of the blue, had attacked him. When the police get wind of the "fight," Kyle becomes a suspect. But it's less Kyle's hackneyed attempts to fortify his alibi than his own unspoken speculation about the identity of the real culprit that drives tension. Why was Clar's estranged wife Bonnie weeping to his mother in their kitchen the night of the murder? And, more crucially, why are his parents covering up the visit, which – unbeknownst to them – he personally witnessed?

The Fortunate Brother is set in the 1980s, but not self-consciously so (one suspects it served Morrissey's ends not to enter the narrative quagmire of DNA evidence, cellphones and the Internet). In many ways its cultivated insularity feels outside time. Morrissey is a terrific mood-setter, something she does not via political, stylistic, or cultural references but through the expertly rendered dialogue whose rhythms and staccato "gawd-damns" function as the novel's soundtrack. The latter, along with her descriptive abilities, are Morrissey's signal strengths and the undisputed stars of this novel.

The community's circling of the wagons around Kyle is instinctive, unspoken. This is a part of the world where if you're walking down the side of the road you get a ride even if you happen to be a murder suspect. Clar, at any rate, isn't a victim to be mourned.

Morrissey has often been praised for her female characters. Here, though, it's the men, with their natural, unweighted repartee, that compel and convince. Dour philosophizing on the nature of loss and hope is left to the women – particularly Addie, and sad, solitary, guitar-playing Kate, who arrived in the community with her grey braid and mysterious past a few years back. These utterances are presumably meant to be uplifting, or profound, but come off instead as self-serious wet-blanketry.

Descriptively speaking, Morrissey's go-to tool is CanLit's perennial workhorse, the simile, and she proves once again that she can wield it better than most: "The sea was flat calm, gulls like black pods resting on its sky-whitened waters" (what are "pods" in this context? Who knows, but their abstraction satisfies). Imagery is always locally sourced, giving us eyes that are "the glistening grey of wet beach rocks," hands "small and pale as clam shells," and a character whose posture is "taut as a forestay in a storm."

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The ending, if not quite revelatory, is convincing enough. All in all, an impressive outing, and a bold new beginning for Donna Morrissey, crime writer.

Emily Donaldson is the editor of Canadian Notes & Queries.

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