John Banville tells a story about his friend and fellow Irish novelist John McGahern. In conversation, Banville expressed regret that he'd had to use the word "lugubrious" twice in his most recent book. McGahern, champion of the plain style, told him that he shouldn't have used it even once.
I suspect that Canadian writer Lisa Moore would nod her head in agreement with McGahern. She eschews showy language and melodramatic content in favor of stark, understated narrative whose effects are subtle and cumulative. Like one of the minor characters in her second novel, "February" (Black Cat/Grove Atlantic, 307 pages, $14.95), she is "willing to let a silence stand" and has a "respect for privacy and a belief that pleasure require[s] mystery and that there [is] mystery behind every bald and ordinary fact."
The title refers, first and foremost, to the month in 1982 when, battered by a huge Atlantic storm, the mobile oil rig Ocean Ranger listed and sank off the Newfoundland coast, with the loss of all 84 hands. One of the victims of this real-life disaster is the fictitious Cal O'Mara, a young father of four.
Twenty-six years later, his widow, Helen, is still struggling to come to terms with the disaster. Now that her children, three daughters and a son, are grown, her money worries are over, but other anxieties keep stabbing away at her. At 56, she is too young to be simply a grandmother. Barry, a decent man and master carpenter doing renovations on her house, may offer some kind of emotional connection, but Helen, disturbed as she is by "how comfortable she [has] become with solitude," may be incapable of rescue.
Although Helen's life in the early 21st century includes vacations in the sun with her sister -- a far cry from the blue-collar existence she led with Cal -- it is in some ways as icy as the Newfoundland weather. The form of the novel reflects this inability to gain any psychological traction. Moving back and forth in time, the story suggests that the tentative progress Helen is making in the present day might be washed away at any moment by the terrible facts of, and her terrible imaginings about, 1982.
Though he has become a globetrotting specialist in the oil industry, Helen's son, John, is also a case of arrested development. However, out-of-the-blue news of a pregnancy might give them both the impetus to move forward, and to at last escape the wreckage of the rig.
Lisa Moore can do impressive things with plain language. A surprised diner, for example, is "paralyzed with sour awe." The short-story-like chapters are full of such moments, and they slowly build a story that is suffused with grief, but never lugubrious.
Robert Cremins teaches in the Honors College at the University of Houston and is the author of "A Sort of Homecoming."