I can now consider Lisa Moore to have officially made it, because she’s been reviewed in the New York Times. I first met her when I interviewed her for The Muse, either just before or just after she became writer-in-residence at Memorial University. I can’t quite remember the exact chronology. She filled the job incredibly well, becoming a popular fixture on campus and deeply integrated with the literature student community. I had given up on writing of my own when she was writer-in-residence, so I wasn’t really an active member of that scene. If I could go back now that I self-identify very differently, I don’t really know what would change. But this post isn’t about other possible worlds.
Her second book is called February, the story of a woman who has taken decades to deal with the traumatic death of her husband at sea. The Times article, by Sylvia Brownrigg, is a very positive review, and it looks like an intriguing book. But there’s an element of the story that the Times doesn’t notice, which is very important for understanding the particular resonance of the book. The book takes place in St John’s, and Brownrigg notes that the protagonist’s husband had died in the collapse of an ocean oil platform in a severe storm in the early 1980s, where none of the crew survived. To a typical New York Times reader, this is all you need to know, and you can appreciate the story for its craft and emotional power at the individual level just fine with this context. But if you’re from Newfoundland, once you know this, the story takes on a deeper, much more traumatic meaning. Because a Newfoundlander reading the description of the husband’s death knows immediately that it was The Ocean Ranger.
The impact of this incident can’t be underestimated. The closest analogue I can see for a more widely known event is difficult to find. The best example I could think of is that The Ocean Ranger is to Newfoundland what The World Trade Centre is to New York City. It’s the greatest single shock of national trauma which that society experienced, and national trauma is the best way to understand its social, cultural, and psychological impact. It was the climax of centuries of deadly terror inflicted on working people by the sea. I don’t want to explain it any more, because my words in a blog post won’t match the place this event has in Newfoundland’s national psyche.
Mindful of this, here is what I think Moore was trying to do. She’s trying to make a national catharsis, a work of art to process the inconceivable. It seems an indirect method, which is probably best, because of the magnitude of the event itself. I don’t know how well she pulls this off, because I haven’t yet read the book. But I admire the project, even while I remain ambivalent.
The particular role of national art in depicting and processing national trauma is important and fascinating, and remains incredibly difficult. An artist has to be very careful not to trivialize the event through the required particularity of a narrative. There also has to be enough distance in time that the event can be properly understood without the immediate pain intefering with thought. Her story takes it as a remove as well, since it’s more specifically about the mourning process for the Ocean Ranger, rather than the event itself. This can be effective, but also very dangerous. If her protagonist, Helen O’Mara, comes to stand too literally for the ‘People of Newfoundland,’ then Moore risks sliding into hokum. But it would only be hokum to someone already familiar with the trauma itself, only a Newfoundlander. This particular kind of hokum would be pretty much invisible to someone not from the island, such as a New York Times book reviewer. I think Moore has the talent to prevent this, but I’m going to have to read the book myself to see. When does it come out in softcover?
(Is this a sign that a national trauma has been overcome? When a citizen can ask when the first major attempt at artistic catharsis is coming out in softcover?)