Michael Crummey’s novel Galore opens with a living man being cut out of the belly of a whale on a beach in Newfoundland. Given my unexplainable propensity for books about fish and other marine animals (Tuna, Cod, The Whale, Kraken, etc.) all I had to do was read the jacket flap and I was in.
In an early-19th century spring, “during a time of scarcity when the ocean was barren and gardens went to rot in the relentless rain,” the people of Paradise Deep in Newfoundland, gather on the beach to butcher a whale that has run itself aground. When the Toucher triplets poke a hole in the stomach lining of the beast, a human head, with “hair bleached white” reveals itself. Hacked loose by the woman known only as Devine’s Widow, the albino corpse proves to be living still, and the town is never the same. The mute man is dubbed Judah (“a compromise between the competing stories of who it was in the Bible had been swallowed by a whale”) and as the fish stocks hit an all-time low after his appearance, the town starts to think he’s “bad for the fish.” (Not to mention that he carries the eye-watering stink of fish on his person until the end of his days.) But when Judah is taken out to the fishing grounds by Callum Devine (at the mysterious behest of his mother, Devine’s Widow) he proves…well, magically adept at fishing and the town’s fortunes swing back towards abundance and prosperity. Fish galore, as they say.
Galore is filled with weird little vignettes like this one, imbued with a magical spark and a folkloric vibrancy that sucks the reader into its undertow and deposits them for the duration amongst the bizarre folk who populate Paradise Deep. Mummers storm your house every Christmas, the ghost of an awful husband is condemned to watch his wife with another man, a woman has all her teeth pulled out so that they never rot, unrequited loves abound across the generations. The family Devine and the family Sellers are the integral cogs in the machinations here, driving the story forward with their slights, feuds, disagreements, illicit love affairs, snubs, fistfights, and secret children. Inextricably linked together, they are Paradise Deep, in the end, whether they like it or not. The story arcs over the course of 100 years or so in this tiny town, tracing familial lineages as they intersect and merge to create a beautifully complicated family tree. Always hovering amongst the branches of that tree is the mysterious Judah, pale, mute, and possibly ageless, yet infinitely more complicated, magical, and brilliant than anyone gives him credit for. He’s the star of the show, the white whale always alluded to but never caught, as his significance manages to slip through our fingers until the last glimpse of him vanishes behind a wave in the final act.
While some readers of The Catapult will think that the family-of-mariners-folklore thing to this is oddly reminiscent of We, the Drowned – another one of the best books I’ve read this year – this similarity is simply due to the fact that I have read and recommended them both. Which begs the larger question (to me, at least) of why am I drawn to novels with themes like this? Hell, I don’t know, but they’re both pretty great, so just pick one and get readin’.
Not convinced? Take 2 minutes and watch this video of the author (a Newfie his own self) talking about the folklore of Galore and Newfoundland/Labrador.