The Strangers’ Gallery by Paul Bowdring –
A Story of Newfoundland
*I received a copy of The Strangers’ Gallery from Nimbus Publishing to review. I enlisted the help of my friend and fellow book club member, Barb to review it*
This is a story about history, who decides how it is written, and who decides what records are kept.
It is the story about Michael Lowe, an Archivist at Memorial University of Newfoundland, his friend Anton Aalders who arrives from Holland in search of his father, and obsessive historian and diehard nationalist Brendan “Miles” Harnett.
It is about broken families and painful memories and historical inaccuracies. It is a story about betrayal, abandonment and loneliness.
It’s not all gloomy though.
The best part of the novel is about Anton’s search as told by Michael. The two men are likeable and quirky. Michael is as malleable as plasticine and simply bends to the whims of those around him. Anton is an amateur authority on almost everything, from botany to home repair.
I visited St. John’s myself last year and I kept thinking how wonderful it would have been to have these two as tour guides. They could expertly share every intimate detail of the city; historically, architecturally, socially and environmentally. But I don’t think they’d be much fun for a night out on George Street.
There is not so much of a “plot” to this novel as there is a progression of disclosures by Michael about relationships, families, lovers and friends, all revealed with the quiet dispassion you would expect from an archivist.
There are threads that don’t lead anywhere, like the staged meeting with Michael’s half-sister, and nothing is ever resolved. It’s almost like a diary, with bits of this and that one day, but no follow up the next. The author carefully weaves these threads as themes throughout the book and even points them out so you can’t miss them, but they never go anywhere. There is no culmination, no resolution, it just ends.
The progression of Anton’s story is interrupted in lengthy detail by the story of Miles Harnett’s unending campaign to keep the memory of the Country of Newfoundland alive and his resentment over the lost dominion and joining with Canada. This part of the novel feels like one of the long and painful road races that Miles is known for, with each step of the proceedings, all of the debate, all of the politicians and players and finally the referendum pounded out in unrelenting detail. I suppose there are history buffs who would appreciate this level of detail, but for the untrained reader it feels like walking a marathon, uphill all the way.
I was excited to read this book. Newfoundland has a wonderfully rich and colourful history of settlement and government with more twists and eccentricities than any other part of the country. The characters reflect the unique personalities that the region is known for and the author is obviously well read and his style of writing is seductive. But the historical detail and dispassionate voice just left me feeling that we’d walked around and around the city too many times, covering the same ground for years and never getting to a destination.
Here’s the book’s description:
St. John’s archivist Michael Lowe’s life is turned on its head when a Dutch acquaintance, Anton Aalders, arrives on his doorstep in 1995. Anton is searching for a father he never met, ostensibly a Newfoundland soldier who was part of the Allied forces that liberated the Netherlands at the end of the Second World War. Anton’s visit stretches from a few days to a few months, reluctant as he is to go in search of his father, and keen to learn as much as he can about Newfoundland, its history, and its people. Rabble-rouser and ardent Newfoundland patriot Brendan “Miles” Harnett, Michael’s friend and sometime bugbear, is obsessed with his own search for the lost “fatherland” of Newfoundland, which relinquished its political independence in 1934. Miles is only too eager to teach Anton—and Michael—the shameful, forgotten history (as he sees it) of the lost country of Newfoundland. The Strangers’ Gallery is a finely crafted, at times humorous, novel about the painful search for identity—both political and personal.