In Michael Crummey's novel "Galore," mythic figures told tales to pull readers in like the tide. His books "River Thieves" and "The Wreckage" were vivid stories of conflict in and out of wartime, soldiers and warriors dragging their damage home, women dealing with it; their children growing up salty and slightly wary.
Crummey's highly anticipated "Sweetland" is similarly set in wind-weathered Newfoundland, but the novel runs just aground of it.
The lighthouse on the island of Sweetland — named for Moses Sweetland's ancestors — has gone dark. So few residents remain that government actuaries determine it's cheaper to pay each a small fortune to relocate rather than service the island. Moses is the last holdout. The story begins with his dreamlike rescue of a boatload of Sri Lankan refugees in a fog. Though they remain unnamed, the refugees are taken in by such neighbors as Loveless, Glad Vatcher and Queenie — vibrantly named folks growing gray along with Moses, their pasts dimming as their time on the island runs out.
The one youthful presence is Moses' adolescent great nephew, Jesse, whose invisible sidekick is Hollis, Moses' long dead brother. Jesse brightens the present with his observations, frank and raw with some Asperger's-like wiring. Is Moses projecting doom when he muses about the boy: "He had the same lonesome feeling about Jesse — that the boy was stranded on the island of his own peculiar self, that he'd never find a soul fit for his eccentric way in the world." As in "Galore," there is masterful writing throughout with unpredictable imagery — after the industrial accident in Toronto that would define Moses' future, he awakens in the ambulance to see his lanky friend Duke "was tucked into a corner, his appendages in that narrow space folded away like the blades of a Swiss Army knife."
The early introduction of the Sri Lankan refugees suggests some engagement with them might be in store, but they drift away early on, barely leaving a ripple. As others begin to decamp, Moses plots a dramatic ruse to stay. Once the island is plucked clean of everyone but him, the point-of-view shrinks to a pinhole as his solitude turns into desolation and autumn gives way to needle-sharp winter. Stores run low. Moses sees things. Are they real?
His spare preoccupations during the final chapters tug the reader along in what feels like real time. Michael Crummey is known as a gifted chronicler, but his readers may long for more color, less weather, and — once it's apparent neither seabird nor buffalo nor any other living creature will be spared — less death and more life. Hopefully, Crummey's next novel will repossess some of the nimble magic he is admired for.
Sarah Stonich is the author of the novels "Vacationland" and "The Ice Chorus." She lives in Minneapolis.