Get Roped into this Story

Book Review of The Shipping News” by Annie Proulx.

shipping news (2)This is the story about a man called Quoyle. That’s an unusual name; it means “a coil of rope.” Already with the naming of this character, author Annie Proulx suggests his life is a tangled one. As the book opens, we read:

“Here is an account of a few years in the life of Quoyle, born in Brooklyn and raised in a shuffle of dreary upstate towns.

“Hive-spangled, gut roaring with gas and cramp, he survived childhood; at the state university, hand clapped over his chin, he camouflaged torment with smiles and silence. Stumbled through his twenties and into his thirties learning to separate his feelings from his life, counting on nothing. He ate prodigiously, liked a ham knuckle, buttered spuds.”

The amount of information packed into this opening is truly enormous. With this, you can probably picture him already, not to mention feel how awkward his life has been. Proulx’s poetic and deft prose pulls the reader in and tangles you into his life, even before you finish the first page. This quiet and simple man is “accidentally interesting.” By that, he seems to be less a man of action and more of a victim. His physical attributes also impress with this feeling, described as being lumbering in size and with a protruding chin. Proulx uses this as a metaphor for Quoyle’s life.

The focus of the story here is two-fold. First, the reader learns that Quoyle’s was desperately in love with his wife. With her, he had two daughters (both of whom he totally adores), but she never really loved him and constantly cheated on him. Moreover, she turned her spite against him so much that her meanness and cruelty to him became an art form. This so much affected him that after she died, he was still unable to stop being infatuated with this horrible woman. Unsurprisingly, the one thing he thinks can do to remove him and his girls from all the painful memories, is to move them all away. This is second part of this tale – Quoyle’s return to his long-abandoned ancestral home, in Newfoundland, taking his two daughters, his Aunt and her dog.

Proulx’s choice of the sparsely populated Newfoundland as a setting will be unfamiliar to most readers. From reading this, the reader finds out just how beautiful and starkly wild this fascinating place is. Through her descriptions of the landscape, Proulx lays brush to canvas in pictures that describe a unique backdrop along with the most uncommon characters that Quoyle encounters. The harsh physical terrain also influences the personalities of the residents, who are as diverse and vastly strange as wind-swept countryside.

This is truly a tale story of pain and misery, which is both physical and emotional. It also is a story about the way one learns to cope with living our lives, especially when faced with adversity. Moreover, the sea metaphor continues with Proulx showing how the tides of one’s life not only pulls one, but helps one to learn how avoid its undertow. A further parallel is Quoyle’s slow entanglement in the goings on of this new home, while Proloux mirrors this with chapter introductions that describe the different sailor’s knots. Moreover, Proulx sailing terms additionally foreshadow the chapter’s coming events

Those aren’t the only parallels here. For instance, there is Quoyle’s seeming lack of journalistic writing ability, until he accidentally discovers his talent for it. This parallels how his first wife breaks his heart, making him feel incapable of having romantic relationships, despite the mutual devotion with his daughters. Moreover, he doesn’t realize what’s happening to him when he stumbles into just such a relationship with a Newfoundland woman. All this and more is done in Proulx’s very poetic, yet approachable style which readers of this book will quickly realize is why this became a particularly unimpressive movie. From the moment you start reading, you will find the lyrical style is one that cannot properly translate into a film of its equal

This is a book that will pull you into a world you’ve never experienced, with unusual characters and fascinating plot twists, in a location you have probably never been to. With this, it will come as no surprise that it received so many awards, not the least of which being the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. If you are looking for an aesthetic reading experience, there are few books out there more worthy than Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News. (As for the movie version of this book, well… ‘meh’ is the best thing I can say about it! Of course, with a book this good, that’s par for the course.)


“The Shipping News” by Annie Proulx is available (via these affiliate links) from Amazon, Kobo Books, Kobo audio books, the website, iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris or Better World Books as well as from an IndieBound store near you.  (This is a revised version of my review that appeared on {the now defunct sites} Yahoo Voices, Helium, and Dooyoo.)

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