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In the first 100 pages of Michael Crummey’s new novel, The Adversary, there is a forced marriage, spousal abuse, a drowning, a stillbirth, a scalding, an amputation and a cold-blooded murder.
As the story begins, there is also a pandemic sweeping through Mockbeggar, the 19th-century isolated outport on Newfoundland’s northern coast where the novel is set. The first sentence sets the scene: “There was a killing sickness on the shore that winter and the only services at the church were funerals.” As the novel progresses, there is sexual assault, rampant injustice, corruption, a few public floggings, a fire, a devastating storm and a lot more death.
Granted, surviving in an isolated community during this period was probably a tough row to hoe at the best of times. But Crummey admits he wanted to up the misery factor.
“The kind of world I’ve created in this book is probably a lot darker than the reality of the time,” says the Newfoundland author. “The mindset of what I’m bringing to the book was my sense of what’s happening around us today. What I decided I was going to do was take the worst of the world as we have made it and compress it all down and have it play out in this tiny community in Newfoundland 200 years ago.”
The themes will no doubt resonate with modern audiences and Crummey says part of the inspiration for The Adversary came from current political culture, saying he was “appalled by, and terrified by, the move to authoritarianism that has been happening in countries around the world, including the big one to the south.”
Nevertheless, it is set in a very specific time and place and one that fans of Crummey’s work will be familiar with. He calls The Adversary a companion novel to his unsettling and Giller-shortlisted 2019 masterpiece The Innocents. That told the story of siblings Evered and Ada Best, who were forced to survive on their own after the aforementioned pandemic killed their parents and baby sister. The two battle hunger and cold with little connection to the outside world. They also share a bed, which leads to a sexual relationship as the two mature. So, like its companion novel, The Innocents was a harrowing tale.
“When I used to do readings for The Innocents, I used to introduce it by saying ‘If it wasn’t for the incest, the cannibalism and the pirates this would be a fairly straightforward, coming-of-age story,” he says. “Then I would say, ‘Oh, I’m just kidding, there are no pirates.”
Partway through The Adversary, the long-suffering townsfolk of Mockbeggar are set upon by … pirates.
This isn’t far-fetched. While invasions by “marauding privateers” are not widely documented in Newfoundland history, they did occur. This was just one of the intriguing tidbits Crummey unearthed when doing research for both The Innocents and The Adversary. Another was George Ryder, a merchant in a small community in Newfoundland around the turn of the century. He was also “a complete bastard”: A drunkard, a bully and a murderer who killed an Irish servant. He was never brought to justice and, in fact, became his town’s Justice of the Peace. He later recruited prostitutes from St. John’s and opened a brothel. He became the inspiration for Abe Strapp in The Adversary, who follows a similar trajectory. When the novel begins, an arranged marriage that would give Abe even more power and wealth is cannily derailed by his sworn enemy, The Widow Caines. It turns out, she is Strapp’s sister, who owns a rival mercantile firm. The Adversary is largely about their power struggle and the havoc it wreaks on their community.
Initially, Crummey wanted Abe to be a part of The Innocents, but figured he would be too big a distraction from the main narrative of the sisters. But he thought the character represented the opposite of everything good about his previous protagonists. So he decided to create a mirror image of that book, setting The Adversary in the same place and timeline as The Innocents.
“Instead of a twisted kind of Adam and Eve story, which is what I had in The Innocents, I decided I would write more of a Cain and Abel story,” Crummey says.
The Adversary is a dark tale of ruthlessness, corruption and misery. But it also has its fair share of laugh-out-loud moments, most of them stemming from Crummey’s ingenious use of language. For all their horrible attributes, both Abe and the Widow are blessed with silver tongues. For all of his novels, Crummey consulted one of his favourite books, The Dictionary of Newfoundland English, for words or phrases no longer used in Newfoundland. Since a number of the characters in both The Innocents and The Adversary are European, he also consulted a book called The Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, which was originally published in the 1790s and updated in 1811.
“The common people’s use of English and their adaptation of it to their everyday experience was just outrageously creative and hilariously funny,” he says. “So much of it is insulting other people or talking about sexual proclivities in a way that is just shadowed enough to be able to use in mixed company but obvious in what it’s discussing.”
This may be one reason Crummey has been attracted to historical fiction. Most of his six novels — including 2001’s River Thieves and 2009’s Galore — take place in the past, even if the themes resonate with modern times.
“I grew up in the era of universal healthcare and vaccines and democratic institutions that are not under direct threat,” he says. “Pandemic notwithstanding, it still gives a lot of us a false sense that we have figured a lot of this and we are safe from a lot of the worst that can happen to people in the world. One of the things that I’m attracted to when I’m looking at historical stories of European settler life in Newfoundland 200 years ago is this undeniable sense that those people had that there was so much in their lives they didn’t have control over. The fact that they were living on a knife-edge was ever present and they knew if things went bad, they went really bad. Writing stories about people where the reality of that is so clear and present I think provides an opportunity that is a lot more muddled in a contemporary story.”
Michael Crummey will appear at Wordfest’s Imaginarium on Oct. 12 at 7 p.m. at the Memorial Public Library and Oct. 15 at 1 p.m. at the DJD Dance Centre. Visit wordfest.com.