Is Lisa Moore a Buddhist? The tragic subject matter of her latest novel fits. February is the account of how one ordinary Newfoundland family carries on after the Ocean Ranger disaster, the infamous sinking of the offshore oil rig on Valentine's Day, 1982, that killed all 84 men aboard, including the fictional Cal O'Mara.
Cal leaves behind his wife, Helen, and four children, one of whom is just a twinkle in her dead father's eye that night. (Not even Helen knows she's pregnant yet.) How Helen manages on her own, and doesn't, and the effect the loss of his father has on John, Cal and Helen's firstborn, 10 in 1982, amounts to a meditation on grief. The First Noble Truth pretty much sums it up: All is suffering.
In her essay in the 2003 anthology Writers Talking, Moore describes her technique of working from a daily journal and moving between notebook and computer. "I have a kind of illogical belief that certain images are magic, super-saturated with meaning. … I want to sneak up on those moments and snag them."
Close attention to these moments makes her writing exquisitely mindful. Time slows right down. Consider when Helen and her sister, Louise, return from going to see Cal's body laid out with the other victims of the Ocean Ranger tragedy, and then losing their nerve. Most writers would offer something like: "Louise took a tissue out of her glove compartment for her sister." Moore gives us, "Louise had reached over and opened the glove box and rooted around, and there was a packet of tissues and she slit the plastic with her nail and tugged one out and Helen took it." The gesture is broken down into its constituent parts. The repeating use of "and" combined with the prose-poem-like structure of each short chapter, often starting with a present-time moment, then jumping from memory to memory, lulls us and draw us in.
I must pause here to confess that I usually find this kind of writing irritating. Novels constructed of luminous images make me feel like a dump truck is slowly tipping a load of rose petals over me. Where's the narrative? Like these other novels, February disregards conventional plot. Its present-time story line is minimal: Helen receives a phone call from John, who has just found out that seven months earlier he impregnated a woman in Iceland, someone he hasn't seen or heard from since. He wants to know what to do. His mother tells him.
All is suffering, certainly, but it's just as true (though perhaps less nobly so) that all is also pretty funny. Moore gets this
This is almost completely overshadowed by back story. But it works. Why? Because image-driven novels are usually humourless - utterly humourless - which is the main reason they annoy me. All is suffering, certainly, but it's just as true (though perhaps less nobly so) that all is also pretty funny. Moore gets this. She gets life. Her precise moment-by-moment observation of it, of things as they are, merges with the novel's subject. She shows us precisely what grief does, and how you get through it, hand over hand, grabbing this memory, then the next, then the next, as you try to crawl through your shattered days.
The present-time narrative? Well, there is no present for the dead. They are locked forever in the past and if you want to keep them in your life, that is where you must commune with them. Later in the book, as John prepares to meet the very pregnant Jane, he thinks, "The present is always dissolving into the past. … It gets used up. The past is virulent and ravenous and everything can be devoured in a matter of seconds."
This is so true! Think about it. Or don't. Try just sitting still for 10 minutes and see one of the favourite places your mind goes.
Moore offers us, elegantly, exultantly, the very consciousness of her characters. In this way, she does more than make us feel for them. She makes us feel what they feel, which is, I think, the point of literature and maybe even the point of being human. For these 308 pages, I was Helen, grief-struck and in love with my husband, furious with him, smashing apart the crib for the baby he would never know because he should have been the one putting it together, working in an crappy office, working in a crappy bar, raising my kids alone, betrayed by age, lonely, so lonely, and finally stumbling into love again. I teared up on pages 157, 198, 206, 253, 261 and wept from page 291 pretty much straight through to page 300. And I laughed, little satisfied chuckles and great snorting explosions, too many times to count.
By the way, February is luminous, too. Light is one of the motifs that gives the novel its coherence. It opens with the sparks flying off the blades of a grandson's skates. In the basilica where people have gathered to mourn the men who died on the Ocean Ranger, "candle flames became sharp stars and the stars threw out spears and her eyes filled and the flames became a wall of sluicing light." Throughout the novel, light lies on tablecloths, it travels on water, it spangles the snow. Helen, at the end, trying to find some meaning in Cal's terrible death, fixes on the image of "a glittering thing, big and disco-ball beautiful, full of dazzle …"
Which sounds a lot like enlightenment.
Caroline Adderson's most recent book is the short-story collection Pleased to Meet You.