Friday, February 11, 2005

Book Review - The Colony of Unrequited Dreams, Wayne Johnson

This is a difficult book to review. A fictionalized life of Joey Smallwood, the last Father of Confederation in Canada, it has many merits, but some significant weaknesses too. I certainly enjoyed reading it, but a number of things niggled at me as I did so.

The story is told mostly in the first person, from either Smallwood's point-of-view (the main narrative) or that of his friend and rival Sheilagh Fielding (her journal entries.) It follows Joey's life from his boyhood in St. John's, Newfoundland to the aftermath of Confederation in the 1950s and beyond.

The writing itself is very good. Johnston knows how to hook and involve the reader and I admit to being pulled in from page one. His descriptions are wonderful. Though I've never been to St. Johns I could taste the salt air and feel the damp chill of an Atlantic fog. Despite the use of the first person, I felt I knew the secondary characters as well, so skillfully were they depicted by the chief protagonists. Smallwood's father stands out in particular.

A mystery is thrown into the mix early on, one that is not solved until close to the end of the book - it adds an interesting dimension to the story. Each time the reader thinks it has been resolved, Johnston throws in another twist.

The plot progresses nicely for the first half of the book, then bogs down in the middle before building steam towards the end.

Smallwood is a fascinating character, but not an entirely likeable one. Sometimes his stubborn pride comes across more as stupidity. Some readers may find that the interruption of the main narrative by Fielding's journal entries, newspaper columns, letters and excerpts from her fictional history of Newfoundland to be more and more annoying. Though some of these devices add depth to the story, others merely slow the pace.

The ending, however, is the biggest disappointment of all. Rather than tying up loose ends, it left me wondering if I was missing a chapter. An Author's Note explaining that Fielding was fictional would have been a good idea - I only learned this by cruising the Internet for background information.

Lest you think I either disliked this book or would not recommend it, this is untrue. Despite the structural problems and the less than stellar ending, it is well worth picking up. The 500 odd pages passed quickly for the most part and proved an enjoyable way to brush up on an oft overlooked area of Canadian and Newfoundland history.

This review first appeared in the December 2000 issue of The Historical Novels Review.
© Teresa Eckford, 2002


Alan Fisk said...

The real Smallwood, whom I encountered several times when I lived in Newfoundland in the 1970s, was one of only three people I've ever known who had a disturbing presence. It happened more than once that I would be in the middle of a crowd of people in a room, and suddenly become aware of a sense of evil. When I looked round I discovered that Smallwood was standing next to me. I didn't read the book, because I didn't believe that the fictional Smallwood could be any more attractive than the real one was.

Tess said...

Alan - very interesting. Interesting how sometimes people we barely know can affect us so strongly. I've had a similar experience, but never with someone quite so well known.