‘A fever dream, a ghost ship that winked in and out of sight among the drift. He was barely well enough to be taken in by the illusion, to feel a rote imitation of hope.’
It’s the ambition of every novelist to engage the reader in a fictional landscape but it’s rarely as well done and immersive as The Innocents. The Newfoundland setting of this novel is so rich in detail and so vividly realised that it feels like being transported there, sometime in the eighteenth or nineteenth century, (the story is deliberately vague on that point). Readers can experience the raw power of wild nature untamed and majestic, something to be in awe of and maybe a little afraid of. The colonists survive or die wholly at the whim of the weather, the terrain, the precarious bounty of the sea – a brutal garden of Eden testing humanity. This is man, not against the elements, but trying to find a harmony with them, a coexistence. In that The Innocents poses potent ecological questions that vex the modern world. This is a novel unconcerned with the trappings of modern life and technology, even the technology and industrial development of the time are not relevant, this is an earthier, fundamental, almost pure, human experience. The protagonists only have each other and their relationship to each other and to nature determines their world view. Evered and Ada are children, emotionally and physically inchoate, every experience is formative and every lesson learned is essential to survival. This is an emotionally powerful, raw and honest novel.
When the children salvage a packages from a shipwreck Ada is partial to the food they discover but it is months later, with the arrival of another vessel, that they discover it is called cheese. Last year they were a family of five eking out a living, subsisting alone on the harsh Newfoundland coast. The father selling dried and smoked fish to The Hope, she calls into the bay every spring and again just before winter sets in. Then tragedy strikes, the new babe, Martha, dies, the ground is too hard for a burial. Mother is soon stricken, she coughs blood and before the winter she is dead too. Father buries her at sea, striping her dress for Ada, she will need it when she grows. Before the new year father dies too. His death is a shock for Evered and Ada, eventually they accept they are alone, they have always had each other but now they have no other, (the children don’t rightly know their age but perhaps he is thirteen, she eleven). Evered takes his father out to sea but cannot bear to strip him, these are clothes he will wish he had later on. Ada will not leave her dead sister for a return to a settlement, she speaks to Martha for comfort. There is nothing for it but to make a go of it themselves, they will have to learn to catch and prepare the fish if they are to stay. For now they have basic supplies, water, firewood, victuals but they must be ready for The Hope in the Spring.
‘…the cove…with the looming circle of hills and rattling brook and it’s view of the ocean’s grey expanse beyond the harbour skerries. The cove was the heart and sum of all creation in their eyes and they were alone there are with the little knowledge of the world passed on haphazard and gleaned by chance.’
The worst of winter arrives, the ice, with its racket, as the weather closes in so that they cannot risk going outside. The Innocents is about the two teenagers; grown before their time, their relationship, negotiating puberty and burgeoning adulthood, they are learning about themselves and each other. It’s touching and Crummey is insightful of their experience. There’s a different kind of chronology at play, this is not about time of day, but seasons. This is about taking nature seriously, paying it due respect and not bending under the weight of it. The elements rule all. Every day is a struggle, it’s a rare moment that they get to laugh and relax. They show a remarkable will to survive despite a naivety that comes from not knowing anything else. As well as nature they have to grasp the opportunities and dangers of human company. The pair are as tight as can be, totally dependent, as they grow and develop their relationship changes. The Innocents is a tender tale of grief and loss, of love and human perseverance, of the curiosity of youth. The Innocents is an emotional read, the language and prose feel appropriate to place and the slightly amorphous time. This is a vivid reimagining of nature and a study of intimacy, involving and compassionate. A fascinating and gripping read.
No Exit Press publish crime fiction but they’ve an eye for literary historical fiction too. Last year it was Whiskey When We’re Dry by John Larison, now longlisted for the HWA Gold Crown, 2020. The Innocents is already been shortlisted for three awards in North America.
The Innocents Michael Crummey
No Exit Press, 9780857304261, paperback, 20th August, 2020.
Reviewed by Paul Burke
Personal read 4.5*
Group read 5*