Books: Still grim up north

The Colony of Unrequited Dreams by Wayne Johnston Doubleday, pounds 15, 562pp: From a frozen country comes a bracing panorama of love and politics. Rachelle Thackeray chills out with an Arctic epic
RUMOUR HAS it has it that Annie Proulx, that brusque but fashionable chronicler of the Canadian wastelands, was less than keen to read Wayne Johnston's novel about the recent history of Newfoundland. She apparently changed her mind, and lauded it as a "brilliant and accomplished" portrayal of a little-known land. She was right; it is both. It does not, however, succeed in brightening up Newfoundland's rather bleak image. But perhaps that is the point.

Johnston left its capital, St John's, seven years ago for the more comfortable surroundings of Toronto. He has given himself enough distance for a deeper purchase, in time and space, on the essence of his chilly, inscrutable land. Both a paean to its grimness and a hymn to the human spirit, his chronicle is quite stunning in scope, underscored by a modest lyricism and a finely-woven plot.

Its real-life hero, Joe Smallwood, struggles in a style both pathetic and captivating against the brutal rigidity of tradition and inheritance. Against the odds, Smallwood - dubbed "the unlikely revolutionary" by his biographer - did achieve a streak of greatness. From unpromising roots, the first of 13 poor children, he became Newfoundland's first premier 50 years ago, when the territory narrowly elected to confederate with Canada after three centuries of British overseers.

Victory was short-lived. Johnston refuses to draw a veil over the excesses that followed Smallwood's election, or even to allow the consummation of the love affair at the heart of the book. But he redeems the meanness of Smallwood through the ally he creates in Sheilagh Fielding, one of those characters who lives on outside the pages. She is an equally unlikely heroine, with a shrivelled leg and a drink problem, very loosely based on an anti- confederationist Newfoundlander now in her nineties. The relationship is entirely a product of Johnston's imagination.

The pair conduct their acquaintance with an often vitriolic vigour over decades. Years pass without a meeting. He gets married. Children are born. Yet something deeper, something which might baffle lovers of the Mills & Boon variety, remains. On page 541, Johnston relents. "Forty years of love," he tells us, "were consummated with one hug". Fantastic - and about time, too.

The entire epic is encrusted with the mundane but profound experiences of life. It conjures up the smells of tar and dust, the reek of bilge- water, the squawk of parrots and the grinding wheels of the streetcar. The setting provides, to use Fielding's term, "a tedium of wonder that exhausted me". We leave the book exhausted, but always wishing for more.