The Town That Drowned (Fredericton: Goose Lane, 2011). Paperbound, 280pp., $19.95.
“The beginning I remember is this.” Not “This is the beginning I
remember.” The difference in word order in the opening line of Riel
Nason’s The Town That Drowned might seem inconsequential, but it
illustrates from the get-go one of the greatest strengths of this book—
its careful use of language. The subtle shift in syntax in this first line
changes the emphasis of the subject, lessens the certainty of memory.
Throughout Nason’s debut novel, the masterful construction gives
the book an energy that elevates our engagement with the characters.
Nason has been publishing in literary journals for several years and
she has clearly been honing her craft in the process. Her novel has garnered
positive reviews across the country, winning the 2012 Margaret
and John Savage First Book Award, and the 2012 Commonwealth
Book Prize, Canada and Europe Region. It was also a finalist for the
2012 Canadian Library Association Young Adult Book Award. So,
what has made this first book so compelling?
In addition to Nason’s knack for language, she possesses an enviable
intuitive sense. Nason writes with a keen logic and with the kind
of wisdom that comes from an astute understanding of what it is to be
human. It is a gift, and Nason brings this gift to the book’s protagonist,
fourteen-year-old Ruby Carson. Written in first person, using an interior
monologue or diary form, Ruby tells us her story, her recollection
of how things went down in her hometown of Haventon, New
Brunswick. There is an anticipation of the reader’s response in every
line, and this serves to draw the reader in and to actively engage with
the characters. Ruby is preternaturally wise, at times even jaded, but
the maturity of her character feels genuine and fully formed. The verity
of her insights is supported in part by the environment in which she
lives. Who doesn’t know a child who has had to grow up fast because
of an extenuating circumstance in their life? For Ruby, this circumstance
stems from her younger brother, Percy. Percy is as smart as he
is odd. These days, we’d probably diagnose him with a form of autism,
but, true to the period in which this novel is set (1965), such terminology
was not so commonplace. What we do know is Percy doesn’t like
change: “It was as if the whole evolving, revolving world was by
nature the problem since it would never stay still for him,” says Ruby.
“Everyone thought Percy was different when he was really all about
being the same.” Percy serves as a compelling symbol in a story where
the catalytic event, the creation of a hydroelectric dam, causes everyone
in the small New Brunswick town to undergo a change.
Prior to the news of the dam, Ruby falls through the ice at a skating
party. The conk to her head gives her a vision that she relays to the
crowd. Ruby sees her town and its citizens drowned. Her school peers
are merciless in their teasing and so, in addition to being associated
with Percy, she is given her own “personalized dent in the joy
of…existence.” Part of the charm of this book is that the events never
take themselves too seriously. When the teasing from her classmates
becomes relentless under the rule of reigning bully, June Crouse, Ruby
muses, “June Crouse demands that I drown. Her singing is getting
better though, more in tune. I even found myself humming ‘Beyond
the Sea’ as I got dressed for school.” Ruby’s vision turns out to be accurate
down to the naming of a woman unknown to the community
until later in the story. But the premonition is handled so deftly it
becomes a subtle point of tension, rather than a major part of the story.
Nason’s story is rich with the regional touches of eastern Canada in
the 1960s (Ruby’s birthday gift to an elderly neighbour is a pack of
Sportsman cigarettes). This level of detail is another of the book’s
strengths. From the smell of hot chocolate when Ruby regains consciousness
from her fall, to the Nesbitt’s Orange pop bottle sealed with
canning wax, Nason imbues every scene with sensory delight. But
anything of the quaint or peculiarly local in this book takes a back seat
to the voice of Ruby Carson. She is one of a kind.
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