canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

The Town that Forgot How to Breathe

by Kenneth J. Harvey
Raincoast Books, 2003

Reviewed by Alex Boyd

See also TDR's interview with Kenneth J. Harvey

I refuse to fall prey to whatever epidemic it is that forces people to describe something new using several previously existing things ("It’s like the Muppets with Matrix action!"), although it’s tempting, in talking about The Town that Forgot How to Breathe. The novel captures a distinct Canadian flavour but feels a little like it has dashes of Edgar Allan Poe thrown into the mix.

In the town of Bareneed, Newfoundland, life is slowly becoming more unusual: people are beginning to fall prey to a breathing disorder, and the sea is spitting out odd looking fish, who in turn spit out their own obscure objects. The themes become clearer as the novel progresses, and to spell it all out here would be to risk hurting a thoroughly enjoyable novel where the sea represents secrets, or perhaps more generally whatever has been cut off from the past. In one passage, the elderly Eileen Laracy attempts to communicate with a spirit:

"Are ye at peace?" Miss Laracy asked.

The glimmer of amusement faded from Uriah’s eyes, then the smile steadily wilted. His body became shrouded in a blood-red pulse that clarified to streams of thin read lines, a multitude of them piercing and leaving his body. He held out his hands, fragmented by blank spaces while his face dissolved into particles; his nose became a stumpy white fish as it separated, his eyes two throbs of jellyfish, his top lip a succulent sea cucumber, his bottom lip a moray eel.

While it isn’t an overly complex plot (and some may expect this from a 471 page novel), it more than makes up for this with meaningful events happening to very human characters, and strong symbolic images. It’s something of a modern fairy tale, complete with power lines – and what power lines have to do with it is another of those things I wouldn’t want to ruin. The book doesn’t feel long – it’s engaging, and maintains a good pace. We’re introduced to a multitude of characters (roughly forty, by my count), but it soon becomes clear exactly which ones are major and minor. And the number of characters allows the town of Bareneed to feel like a real and populated one. In fact, I stopped to think that reading it felt like reading a "real novel," not a screenplay with a little extra description the way some novels can feel.

Harvey writes dialogue that sounds like dialogue, including regional accents, and is expert at relating scenes patiently, staying with the perspective of a character and not getting ahead of his reader. Here’s a moment when a major character is reeling from the sickness plaguing the town, suffering paranoia and hallucinations:

Someone was screaming horribly. He was close to it. The kettle. He noticed that the toaster was unplugged. He plugged in the cord and felt better. How had he moved to the kitchen so quickly, sparked ahead? …The telephone receiver was in his hand, so he assumed he must have picked it up from its cradle on the wall. Perhaps someone could tell him how to stop the screaming.

As someone who finds it disturbing that North Americans seem to be encouraged to only ever remember the last five minutes of history (is that a consumer/capitalist thing?) I enjoyed the theme, implicit throughout the novel, that technology is less important than history, and shouldn’t be allowed to interfere with our knowledge of it. The Town that Forgot How to Breathe is recommended as a breath of fresh air itself – as a well written, enjoyable and compelling novel.

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