BOOK REVIEW / Man of knotty twists and two bolts of joy: The shipping news - E Annie Proulx: Fourth Estate, pounds 14.99

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The Independent Online
WHEN bad things happen in Russian literature, the enormous landscape seems uncrossable, like fate. But if life takes a turn for the worse in the American novel, people can always skip town, hitch a ride, move on down the line, think about making a fresh start somewhere new. So the most striking aspect of E Annie Proulx's award-winning novel is that it is about people making a fresh start somewhere old.

The Shipping News is the winner of this year's Irish Times Fiction Prize, and is also on the shortlist for America's National Book Award. It describes a man who responds to a mid-life crisis by going back to the place he came from: Newfoundland. The flavour of life on this storm-tossed island allows Proulx to contrast the harsh solemnities of the old way with the violent triviality of urban Americana. It is nostalgic in the best sense: there is no weepy home-sweet-home stuff about the red earth of Tara, but the novel throbs with the idea that there are austere verities in the simple life, and the notion that the way back is the way forward. It is not a fluke that it all takes place in new found land.

The hero is an inept, good-natured bungler called Quoyle; his name means a coil of rope, and it is clear from the start that he is a rope torn free of its mooring - the man has lost contact with the buoy. In a melodramatic prologue, he is taken for a heartbreaking ride by his cruel wife, Petal. The story of this marriage might have made a novel in itself, but Proulx is not much interested in Petal except as a soap-type ruse to make Quoyle miserable. He wanders about in a daze, seeing the world in newspaper headlines: Man Dies of Broken Heart. Phone Rings in Empty Room.

Petal sells their two daughters to a pornographer for dollars 7,000 and is immediately, in a stroke of corny poetic justice, killed in a car crash, dollar bills tumbling from her corpse. Runaway Mum Abducts Children, Quoyle thinks. Mortally hurt ('nothing was clear to lonesome Quoyle') he teams up with a testy but resourceful aunt and heads for his roots.

It's a good idea, even though his roots turn out to be in Newfoundland, where the living is far from easy. 'There's two ways of living here now,' someone remarks. 'There's the old way, look out for your family, die where you was born, fish, cut your wood, keep a garden, make do with what you got. Then there's the new way. Work out, have a job, somebody tell you what to do, commute, your brother's in South Africa, your mother's in Regina, buy every goddamn cockadoodle piece of Japanese crap you can. Leave home.'

Proulx has a terrific feeling for the bitter idioms of life in these jagged, windswept coves and bays. She has developed a striking, virile grammar that largely dispenses with words such as 'and', 'he' and 'was' - words which many writers find useful. It is almost wantonly inelegant, and it nicely captures the bracing effect of the northern climate on Quoyle's soft, timid heart. Here, for instance, he is taken by a friend to see the old family house: 'Billy seized his bag and jumped out of the boat, bootheels made semicircles in the sand. Secured the line to a pipe hammered into the rock. Quoyle clambered after him. The silence. Only the sound of their boots gritting and the sea murmur.'

It is probably meant to sound like waves dashed against stones, and it works. The landscape tugs at Quoyle's spirits: whipped along by the whine of freezing gales, and stung by the poignant frailty of life beside a wild ocean, he gets a grip. He tucks into Newfie food - fried bologna and seal flipper curry - joins a local newspaper (the owner meanly makes him car smash reporter as well as shipping correspondent), rebuilds the old family home, and falls in love. It's a satisfying story, even if the peaks and troughs are rather flattened by a mannered style that scours the prose like some unending Atlantic wind.

The prominence of this insistent rhetoric also encourages Proulx to take some risks with plausibility. Quoyle is terrified of water, yet he buys a dud boat, is literally taken aback by a sudden wave, and somehow survives for six hours in an iceberg-cold sea, even though a big thing has been made of the fact that he can't swim. He is mysteriously drawn to dead bodies: one day he finds a suitcase with a severed head in it, and later rescues the headless part. If Sherlock Holmes did this, we could attribute it to his magical intelligence, but Quoyle is a stumblebum. Proulx tries to make improbable events seem poetic and surreal by draping them in ragged language, but cannot quite hide the thump of contrivance underneath.

Similarly, she punctures the sense of arrival at the end, when Quoyle reaches a touching and well-earned happiness. He lies in the bath and reflects that he is 'at some prime physical point', and we are happy for him. Yet we read: 'Again, a bolt of joy passed through him. For no reason.' No reason? There are a hundred reasons: he is in love, and is loved in return; he can see that Petal was vile and that his doting fondness for her was wet; he can even confess to his nervous daughter Bunny that Mummy is dead, not just asleep. All kinds of ghostly skeletons have toppled into the open - the piratical career of the old Quoyles, a nasty child-abuse story involving his aunt. A bolt of joy is about the least we might expect him to feel, and it is a crying shame that Proulx wants to make light of it, to pretend that she has bigger fish to fry than the happiness of her hero, to imply that she is after something more Olympian than the ups and downs of mere mortals. The story collapses in a bunch of miracles which prove little more than that yes, indeed, it's a funny old life.

For some reason, each chapter begins with a picture of a knot. Scout-minded readers might enjoy figuring out how they work, but they have both a likeable tang of authentic folk know-how and a vague symbolic importance. Life isn't half knotty, eh? One of the diagrams recommends the best way to smooth out a chaotic rope, and again the significance is clear: this is a novel about someone trying to untangle the past. It is not surprising when the not very romantic - it's two shipwrecked castaways clinging to each other for safety - romance ends with the lovers tying the knot. Surprisingly, Proulx ignores some promising knot-opportunities: she does not mention nautical miles, and the central creative drama in the novel, the building of a sleek new boat, is handled with no reference to the knots that lurk in wood.

The Shipping News is a fierce elegy for a world of weatherbeaten fishermen and cold winters; it is composed in a fine and singular key; and it is about nice deep things, such as facing up to the past and overcoming your fears. But in the end, for all the brilliance of Proulx's craftsmanship, not everything adds up. As Quoyle would say: Novelist Attempts Rope Trick, Audience Sees Hands Move.