February by Lisa Moore

FebruaryFebruary is a novel constructed around a real and tragic historical event that occurred in Newfoundland, Canada just over thirty years ago, a tragedy that remains deeply felt in the area today. All Newfoundlanders of a certain age, remember where they were on the night the Ocean Ranger sank, a technological wonder that was supposed to be unsinkable, one that if safety procedures had been followed, indeed, may not have done so.

The book was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2010. The cover doesn’t tell us much about the scope of this novel, I expect it represents the protagonist Helen, at about the age she must have been, in her 30’s when she learned she had lost her husband at sea.

From Wikipedia:

Ocean Ranger was a semi-submersible mobile offshore drilling unit that sank in Canadian waters on 15 February 1982. It was drilling an exploration well on the Grand Banks of Newfoundland, 267 kilometres (166 mi) east of St. John’s, Newfoundland, for Mobil Oil of Canada, Ltd. with 84 crew members on board when it disappeared. There were no survivors.

OceanRanger

‘Ocean Ranger Oil Rig’ – Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia

It was the day after Valentine’s Day, Helen, received a card from her husband Cal, a day or so later. Cal’s mother phoned the Coast guard and shouted at them, saying they’d got it wrong. If the men were dead the company would have informed the families.

Helen knows in her heart it is true, but she needs the body of her husband. Her father-in-law convinces her that she doesn’t want to remember him that way.

‘There were people who went on hoping for months. They said there must be some island out there, and that’s where the survivors were. There was no island. Everybody knew there was no island. It was impossible. People who knew the coast like the back of their hand. But they thought an island might exist that they hadn’t noticed before.’

At night she dreams of him and believes he wishes her to join him.

‘How awful. Death has made him selfish.

Forget the children. This is what he means. Forget yourself. Come with me. Don’t you want to know what happened?

She feels as though she is betraying him by staying. It is relentless and exhausting, every time she says no him, she forgets him a little more.

The novel moves between the 1970’s when she and Cal were married to October, November 2008, the present, when Helen awaits the arrival of her son John, who has called from Tasmania, Australia to tell her he is going to become a father.

Helen is kept busy running her own dressmaking business and at the insistence of her sister Louise, is having her floors replaced by Barry. She doesn’t want the job to end, she becomes used to his presence, his ignorance of her. It makes her desire him.

John’s story also moves between 2008 and the mid 90’s when he makes a career change, becoming an engineer for the same industry that took the life of his father. He has had a high risk job and never wanted to become a father. The novel gives more space to John and the mother of his soon to be born child, Jane, while giving little space to the two daughters, who appear on the fringes, are not close to their mother, nor developed with much depth.

‘John has avoided being a father all his adult life. It has taken stealth and some underhandedness. It has taken clarity of purpose when the moment called for dreamy abandon. He has practised withdrawal. He has kept what he wants, what he actually wants for his life, in the centre of his thoughts, even while in the throes of orgasm. He’s kept a tight fist on the reins of himself.’

February is a brilliantly constructed  and thought-provoking vision of one woman’s grief in the wake of her husband’s death, leaving her pregnant and with three children to raise. It illustrates the way this event and the memories it triggers, return in waves from that point forward, that death is not really death, it is a form of ever-present, albeit fading memory.

While never overly melancholic, Helen’s recollections and reconstructions of what may have happened to her husband in those last minutes, her studying of the manuals to understand how to resolve the problem that caused the sinking, reminded me of Joan Didion’s study and reliving of her own husband’s death in The Year of Magical Thinking (2005).

However life continues on and around Helen and those quotidian narratives reminded me of the work of Anne Tyler as we see-saw between the practical elements of daily life and the introspection of a death that stays with someone their entire life and in those still moments, returns as potently, as if it were yesterday.

Moore lost her father a few years before the Ocean Ranger sank, she was 16 and her sister 12, giving her first hand experience of how grief works it way through a family, how it makes and shapes the lives of those left behind, an experience that enriches the novel and brings it alive, makes it feel authentic.

Quietly compelling, highly recommended.

‘I think the most important thing I’ve learned about grief – and coming through it – is that you don’t forget the person you’ve lost. Rather, the memories become sharper, gather new meaning, and are richer over time. The absent become more present, not less so, as time goes on.’ Lisa Moore, extract from an interview with Bookgroup.info

 

14 thoughts on “February by Lisa Moore

  1. I like the way you have linked this book to others you have read. I have been aware of this book for a long time but still don’t know if it would be a read for me (my relationship with Canlit is uneasy at best). However, seeing books that deal with events that happened within my adult lifetime – and this was, of course, major news here – tagged as historical fiction makes me feel very old indeed.😦

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    • I did wonder about that tag, but counted back and years and decided that it was such a significant event, that it merited the categorisation.

      I haven’t read a lot of Canadian literature, but this one was given to me in London a few years ago and I’ve been meaning to read it, the cover didn’t particularly grab me, but Anne Enright’s endorsement “passionate, gritty, lucid, and beautiful” helped sway me into ventuing into it, and I loved it. Slow on plot, insightful on introspection, vivid in imagery.r

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  2. Great review, Claire. I like your commentary about grief and the way an experience shapes the lives of other family members left behind. I sometimes wonder whether I might have grown up to be a different person had my father not died when I was a relatively young girl. It’s impossible to tell of course, but I suspect his death shaped my personality in various ways. I think I’m quite cautious and introspective by nature, possibly as a result of this experience (at least in part).

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    • Thank you Jacqui, yes I am sure the death of a husband or parent unexpectedly is one of those significant turning points in a life that creates a shift or change in awareness and perception, the world can not be seen in the same way again. I am sure the experience reshapes personality, it must do. It’s interesting to develop such self-awareness as well, I often wonder about who or how we might be, if some event had or hadn’t happened. We will never know, but thanks to the imagination, we can ponder it!🙂

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  3. Thanks for reminding me of what a fine novel February is, Claire. It’s quite a few years since I read it now. I’d echo Jacqui’s comments about losing a parent when quite young, and your comment about death being an ‘ever-present, albeit fading memory’ struck home. A very thoughtful review, as ever.

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    • Thanks Susan, glad to come across another who remembers it and has read it, I don’t recall it from the longlist of the Man Booker, but it was recommended to me a few years ago and so I decided it was time to read something from Canada, and this seemed like a good choice, set as it was within the context of an unforgettable tragedy. The way she manages the character’s grief was really well done, carefully balanced with that fact of life moving on and continuing and even the things we try to control or prevent are not guaranteed to behave as planned. Life is unpredictable.

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  4. The awful thing is that if I ever knew about this disaster I have completely forgotten about it and yet for those people involved that is never going to be possible. I would need to steel myself to read this but I think that perhaps I should try.

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    • I didn’t know about it at all Alex, however we can all imagine how such a disaster can affect a small community, where nearly everyone is in some way affected by the tragedy. It is more of a reflection on the aftermath and how it changes a person and how life intervenes and brings people out of that introspective space, dimming the memories that cause such grief.

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  5. I read this waaaaay back in 2010, back when I used to read the Booker longlist every year. I’d completely forgotten about it until now. I always did mean to check out more of her writing.🙂

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    • Now you’ve got me intrigued as to which titles were on that longlist. Did you read them all? Did you have any favourites from the list? Here they are:

      Peter Carey, Parrot and Olivier in America
      Emma Donoghue, Room
      Helen Dunmore, The Betrayal
      Damon Galgut, In a Strange Room
      Howard Jacobson, The Finkler Question (2010 Winner)
      Andrea Levy, The Long Song
      Tom McCarthy, C
      David Mitchell, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet
      Lisa Moore, February
      Paul Murray, Skippy Dies
      Rose Tremain, Trespass
      Christos Tsiolkas, The Slap
      Alan Warner, The Stars in the Bright Sky

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  6. I did read them all, but I only blogged about 8 of them.

    I *did* manage to write a concluding post at the end though (link: http://tomcatintheredroom.com/2010/10/11/tomcats-bookerthon-a-conclusion/). There’s even a pic of the longlist all stacked on my bedside table.

    I really liked The Tom McCarthy, ‘Room’ by Emma Donoghue, and David Mitchell’s one, too (I reviewed all of those at the time). I HATED The Slap.

    Man… that was a long time ago. I was relatively new to book blogging back then. I was terrible at writing reviews too… even worse than I am now!

    T.

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