Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Custodian of Paradise

The Custodian of Paradise (Vintage Canada, 2006) is a sequel to Wayne Johnston’s masterful The Colony of Unrequited Dreams. Set mostly in St. John’s, Newfoundland in the early decades of the 20th century, the story opens with Sheilagh Fielding, the story’s narrator, preparing to travel alone to a remote island off the coast of Newfoundland.

What would bring a woman to seek isolation in such an uninhabited place? As is soon revealed, Fielding needs a form of seclusion to reflect on her life and write her story, a story that is heavily weighted in sadness, tragedy and misfortune. But in Wayne Johnston’s deft hands, that sadness and tragedy are beautifully and expertly told; the most wrenching moments never become oppressive or maudlin.

Without giving away too much away, the 14 year-old Fielding is traumatized by an incident that will ultimately shape the rest of her life. With a six foot one frame, a disfigured foot, and a penchant for drink, Sheilagh Fielding is regarded by others as something of a freak – unwanted, unloved, scorned and ridiculed at every turn. Her most powerful weapon in fighting against the cruelty of others and as an outlet for her pain is a ferocious intellect, a razor sharp wit and an extraordinary talent for writing.

At an early age, Fielding finds an outlet for her pain and daemons as a newspaper columnist, where she succeeds in chiding, poking and mocking the establishment in all its hypocrisy, intolerance, bigotry and pettiness. Where a scrappy and ambitious Joey Smallwood (former Premier of Newfoundland) was the central figure and narrator in Colony, in this tale he appears at different points in Fielding’s life, always ready to verbally spar with his worthy adversary. The witty repartee between Smallwood and Fielding almost jumps off the pages.

The novel weaves back and forth between the present (on Loreburn island) and the past through personal recollections, letters and diary entries. Johnston does a superb job piecing Fielding’s story together, in language that is rich in detail and pleasing to the ear, with just enough suspense thrown in to keep readers engaged.

One of the central themes is the idea of revenge and the impact it has on those who aim to inflict it, and those unfortunate enough to be caught up in its collateral damage. In one of the letters written by a secret “Provider,” whose identity is withheld until the end, there are these poignant lines: “There comes a point when spite is an end in itself. When bitterness somehow sustains and enervates the soul.”

The Custodian of Paradise contains many such nuggets. This is one of those novels whose voices, images and drama will stay with me for a long time – and it deserves to be read.

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