February by Lisa Moore
Black Cat, New York, 2009
This novel was on the long list for the 2010 Man Booker Prize. I borrowed it from the library.
February is the first book I have read by Lisa Moore and I loved it, was moved by it. It is the story of Helen O’Mara, her four children and a tragedy, the sinking of an oil rig off the coast of Newfoundland. Helen’s husband, Cal, dies on that rig, leaving Helen to raise her children. The accident is based based on a true event.
On February 15th, 1982, the oil rig Ocean Ranger sank 165 miles east of Newfoundland, taking the lives of all 84 men on board. Many years later this event still has an impact on the lives of the people of Newfoundland.
Moore tells this story in several voices, shifting back and forth in time, and it helps that the heading of each small section includes the year. Helen’s is the main focus, her devastation at the loss of her husband and her split lives, one holding the world together for her children, the other drifting, without an anchor, in a place separate from others, barely surviving the grief, the inability to understand, just hanging on by a thread. She lives in the present and she lives in the past with her husband, going over each tiny piece of their life together as if turning something precious in her hands. Why did they make the choices they did?
There were men who would kill to have this job: that was the wisdom they worked under. And: the helicopter was a terror. But it was impossible to imagine the whole rig capsizing.
If the men did imagine it they did not tell their wives; they did not tell their mothers. They developed a morbid humor that didn’t translate on land, so they kept it mostly on the rig. From page 97.
Her son John has just learned that he is about to be a father and is returning home for her support. He is also overwhelmed by memories.
John remembers being in the back seat of the car with his sisters and going down Garrison Hill. Coming up over Bonaventure, his father would gun it, saying they were going straight for the harbour. Her and Cathy and Lulu in the back and his mother in her red wet-look hot pants suit. His stomach would lift when they went over the top of the hill and came down, like being in an elevator. The little bounce the car made. The girls screaming. His mother wore big sunglasses and hoop earrings and she had long legs, his father tended to her hand and foot. Flying over the Garrison Hill, the east end lost in fog. The bells of the Basilica. From page 106.
A novel like February could have been written in ways that are overwrought and maudlin, but Moore side-steps this by using clear, descriptive language to focus the reader on her character’s thoughts and feelings. At times this feels thin, almost shallow, but then I felt as if I was walking on a very fine sheet of ice, and below there was all that depth, the cold weight of great loss. Even though I have not been through anything like Helen’s tragedy, I empathized with her and often found myself right there in that place of fragility, fighting off despair. Moore writes with words that are beautiful and evocative. I will read more of her work.
The snow was lifting off the drifts in transparent glittering sheets that twisted and flapped and folded together at the corners and folded again, and she could hear someone’s tires squealing on the road. The tires were burning and squealing and the engine was growling and it was such a magnificent morning and her knees gave. The trees were encased in ice and the sun shot sparkles down the length of the branches. The sun was like an old nickel in the sky, tarnished, dull, behind all the flying snow. Helen’s knees would not hold her. The whole world floods you, bursts you open; the world is bigger than expected, and brighter. From page 270.
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