In Newfoundland nature is a blessed snarl, humans an imposition. You have to want to come here; you have to want to fight to stay. You are not seed on fertile ground. You are a fish washed up on a rock. – Kevin Major, New Under the Sun
You may already have read how I feel about Sam Martin’s writing; I wrote a review of his debut, a collection of short stories called This Ramshackle Tabernacle. In sum, excellent writing, powerful imagery, palpable setting, details that have stuck with me since. Also, TRT is about finding light in the dark, a darkness that is often raw and upsetting, brave in its honesty. How many ways darkness and light and our struggles from one to the other can be expressed is boundless. In A Blessed Snarl, Sam Martin explores this theme even further.
Several stories are at play in the novel, though all are joined not only by themes but also by association. Patrick Wiseman, a pastor, has moved his wife, Anne, and son, Hab, back to Newfoundland to start up a new church, but Anne is miserable and one day leaves Patrick and Hab for another man, in Ontario, with whom she’s reconnected on Facebook.
Hab moves out of his parents’ home to live with his girlfriend Natalie and a couple of other friends, whose stories, both past and present, we also come to know. Throughout the novel, then, we are with Patrick, Anne, Hab, Natalie, their friend Gerry, and a few others, and learn not only their stories but also those of the people they interact with. Thus, rather than having a focused plot, though there is a storyline, we have greater character development; we’re given more of a wide-angle view through which we essentially witness the struggles through darkness in its many forms into redemption, hope, love.
As exemplified in both of his books, Martin, who is a newly minted doctor of English Literature (just this week!), has a certain knack for writing out and excavating the things in life that are difficult to read, let alone experience. In A Blessed Snarl, we have a significant, symbolic fire that leaves some dead, others both physically and emotionally scarred (and this is not the only important fire in the book); a young, destructive and dangerous sociopath; a man searching for meaning in his wife’s abandonment and reconciling that with his belief in God; a young man’s struggle in reaching out to and loving his troubled, alcoholic girlfriend; a burgeoning writer whose issues with his degenerate father leak out into his life and cause a misguided act of brutality for which he later seeks forgiveness.
There are several significant father/son relationships in this book, all of which, while somewhat different, are troubled. This theme is also explored in This Ramshackle Tabernacle; Gerry’s story in ABS is similar to that of Doug in “The Hammer.” Both sons struggle to come to terms with fathers who are sexually deviant, and each is led to an act that ultimately gets them into trouble.
There is also an overriding theme of backstory, of history, in this novel, as is seen not only in the telling of these stories of the characters but also in the format of the book. Each part of the novel (there are four) is preceded by an art image: a lithograph, a sculpture, a drawing, and a photo. These images are integrated into the story.
However, especially noticeable is that, more than events happening in the present, we are often given a character’s reflections on their memories, or, in Gerry’s case, he also delves into Hab’s grandfather’s suspicious history by asking him questions and finding evidence in his shed. At some points, I felt impatient with this seeming passivity, with characters going off into reverie and often spacing out as whatever they were doing reminded them of something in the past; it occasionally felt like an overused vehicle to divulge information and I felt that this sometimes made the novel feel loose—yet the introspection is also telling and not an inaccurate way of portraying how we deal with unresolved issues from our past that also affect our present.
This introspection did help flesh out the characters, though as Martin proved in TRT, his characterization skills hardly need much help. This novel’s characters are fully realized, particularly the unfortunate Rod, a grossly misunderstood man who awakens compassion in us when we might otherwise show disgust, and who cannot go without mention here. Patrick is bumbling and frustrating, though simultaneously pitiful and even beautiful. While sometimes I felt the religiosity overmuch, some associations seeming somewhat forced both with him and Hab, I would have liked to have read more about Patrick, especially as the novel begins with him and leans heavily toward him in the first part. This focus swings to rest on Hab, Natalie, and Gerry, and as such the novel felt somewhat unbalanced, but Patrick’s story does come to a sort of resolution.
Also well realized is Anne’s mortifying meeting with her Facebook acquaintance, Gerry and Rod’s encounters, Natalie’s dealings with a disturbed boy at the group home, and the ending bonfire, during which there is such tension (you know something major is going to happen) that one (needlessly) panics seeing how few pages are left.
CanLit is notoriously about setting, and as we’ve seen in Kathleen Winter’s Annabel, Newfoundland is one place that not only drives plot but also exists as a palpable background for character development. Martin’s skill in rendering The Rock as real as though you were there is remarkable. As in This Ramshackle Tabernacle, setting is not only background but also just as much a character in A Blessed Snarl as anyone, and it becomes apparent just how much our surroundings affect us. Setting is often a powerful force humans find themselves sometimes fighting. In this case, Newfoundland is also partly what drives a wedge between Patrick and Anne. Rocks, stones, cold, ice, wind, snow, fire…one gets a clear sense of the land and its intrusive personality in this novel. (It goes very well with Martin’s excellent, balanced use of the vernacular in some characters.) In one tense scene, Patrick acts on the suicidal urge to cross the cracking, moving ice floes from one end of the bay to the other. Another time, Hab and Gerry struggle to survive the cold and wet in Hab’s grandfather’s cabin in the woods not far from the water, a place where Hab’s grandfather, father, and these two young men have felt not only the presence of history but of spirituality and religious and emotional struggle and discovery.
As in TRT, winter, cold and raw, crackling with energy and power yet also bleak, takes hold and serves as a fitting background for the darkness, whether spiritual, emotional, or physical, through which the characters must wend their ways. This human struggle, what Martin seeks to portray most of all, is explored in a remarkably sensitive, observant manner, and is often gritty, disturbing, nerve-wracking, and heartbreaking but also breathtakingly satisfying.
Released only two years after This Ramshackle Tabernacle, A Blessed Snarl clearly demonstrates that Sam Martin is on a thrilling roll. Even with his work as a professor of Creative Writing and finishing his PhD, among all his other endeavours and travels, this novel comes out a strong contribution to CanLit, worthy of attention. Martin is definitely an East Coast writer to watch. I expect, in return for his dedication to English literature, his own books will end up the subject of students’ university papers.
Click to hear Sam read from A Blessed Snarl
Special thank you to Breakwater Books for sending me my copy for review and for being so patient in waiting for this to show up.