I picked up the novel February by Lisa Moore because it won CBC’s Canada Reads 2013. After reading Galore by Crummey, I was interested in reading something more recent about Newfoundland. February is a circular story about a woman who loses the love of her life when the oil rig he is working on off the coast of Newfoundland, the Ocean Ranger, sinks on Valentine’s Day night, 1982. Helen, the main character, goes through years of sorrow, grief, pain, and numbness. She claims that she is living ‘outside’ but needs to pretend to be ‘inside’ for her four young children.
My edition is the cover on the right, yet I’m not sure which cover is more fitting for the novel. Although the novel centres around a woman and her grief over the loss of her husband, her husband does play a central role as well. Cal, Helen’s husband, is seemingly always present in her thoughts. Sometimes her memories are so real Helen is surprised that Cal isn’t there. These memories catch her off guard and are often simple moments of a life that happen everyday, like Cal tasting the Ocean, Cal fixing a kite for his children, of Cal using the en-suite bathroom in the middle of the night. Helen even scolds herself that she is losing the memories, years after Cal is gone.
Yet, maybe the cover of Helen standing alone is appropriate. In the novel, Moore does a wonderful job of expressing the loneliness Helen feels after Cal’s death. Cal saw Helen. He did things for Helen. He thought about Helen. Once Cal is gone, Helen is left to raise four children on her own and is always looking out for the needs of her children. She becomes invisible
One of her children, John, is another character that Moore focuses on in the novel. Moore describes John’s protectiveness of his mother, his need to fill the role his father left gaping open in Helen’s life. He becomes extremely stressed as a child, worried about his mother. Yet John cannot wait to get away and ends up with a job travelling around the world. In the novel, he is a man in his mid-to-late thirties who cannot commit to a relationship, especially when talk turns to children. He does not want to be tied down. John, who cannot put his head under water. John, who buys expensive bottles of truffle oil from Montreal. John, who does the cooking for the family when he is home (he makes extravagant and interesting meals and enjoys pleasing the women in his family). John, who buys his sister a plane ticket to get home for Christmas. As much as he tries to live his own life, he cannot leave his family behind.
For me, the hardest pages to read where the pages describing the attempted rescue of the Ocean Ranger. It was February and the ropes on the nearest boat were frozen. Everything was frozen in the storm and mist. The men from the rescue boat and the men in the Ocean and the lifeboat had conversations about the ropes, all the while knowing that survival was not going to happen. Yes, hearing that your husband died in a work disaster over the radio would have been devastating, but I cannot help but feel the sorrow and pain of those men on that rescue boat who were helpless to save the men of the Ocean Ranger.
This book is full of sorrow, yet it also has wonderfully funny moments: mistakenly thinking a young Japanese tourist in Tasmania cannot speak English; a fight over prom lipstick; a naked beach in Greece; and an incident involving a hill, a bus, a red light, and a standard car.
Also, it includes some Newfoundland folklore: the old hag dream.
“After his father died, John had a vivid recurring nightmare. Every night, for a long time, a presence would seep through his bedroom door. An evil presence, in the form of a cloud, wet and cold. It swirled over the bed, full of weather and stars, and settled on his chest, and as it grew heavier, John felt a paralysis creep through him until he couldn’t move. Then the cloud took on the form of a naked old woman who squeezed her hands over his throat. He’d feel himself suffocate. Sometimes it was an old woman, sometimes it remained a cloud, but always he’d felt awake, alert with terror, and he could not breathe. (92)
Overall, I don’t think I was able to connect to the book as well as I have connected to others because I have never lost someone I loved that closely or who was that intimate in my everyday life and future. That being said, I did enjoy the circular story. I enjoyed going back and forth between present and past, between characters, and between thoughts about death and loneliness and moments of joy and laughter. I appreciate that Moore leaves the reader feeling uplifted and ends with a sense of hope and new life for the characters.
Weeping may stay for the night, but rejoicing comes in the morning. (Psalm 30:5)