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‘The Innocents’ doesn’t take easy narrative path

‘The Innocents’ doesn’t take easy narrative path
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The Innocents, the new novel from St. John’s, Nfld., writer Michael Crummey, begins with tragedy. “They were still youngsters that winter. They lost their baby sister before the first snowfall. Their mother laid the infant in a shallow trough beside the only other grave in the cove and she sang the lullaby she’d sung all her children to sleep with, which was as much as they had to offer of ceremony.”

Within two paragraphs, the youngsters’ mother dies. Their father follows within two pages. And, after burying them separately at sea, the youngsters — Evered and his younger sister Ada — are left alone, the only residents of a small cove on Newfoundland’s wild coast, neither of them older than twelve (although they have no real way of knowing their ages).

While readers might be expecting a survival story — two children fighting for their lives against the elements — The Innocents is more complex, and much subtler, than that. Yes, there are elements of survival, but their youth is much less a factor than one might expect: long winters, poor fishing, limited food and unexpected disasters are components of that life, regardless of age, and Ada and Evered, trained to the work and self-denial all their lives, do surprisingly well.

In much the same way that Crummey flips that expectation on end, The Innocents resists reader anticipation at every turn. The Beadle, for example, a former churchman who now serves as the accountant on a ship that visits the cove twice each year, trading the family’s dried fish for winter supplies, and seeing their debt growing deeper every season, seems, initially, a figure of malice, of the evils of resource-driven profiteering. Similarly, the arrival of a crew of sailors in the cove is loaded with menace. Neither of these situations, in fact, turns out how one might expect, and this willingness to resist the easy narrative path is one of The Innocents’ great strengths.

It is also one of Crummey’s great strengths as a writer. Another is his facility — his gift — with language. Crummey is able to create sentences of considerable beauty and force without ever seeming to overstep himself, a complexity rooted in the emotional weight of the language and his comfort with the vernacular. The novel never reads as excessive; its beauty is restrained, weighted and often heartbreaking.

Which is perhaps the best description of the novel overall. Crummey makes a virtue of the self-imposed limitations of the story — essentially two characters in a single setting — to explore the nature of what makes us who we are, what makes a family, and the sacrifices that are made in the name of love.
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