Set in an Irish Catholic parish on the coast of Newfoundland, most of the events in this text take place on 24 June 1948 on the feast of St John the Baptist, the bringer of light commemorated with bonfires ignited on the headland. But it is also Midsummer's Day.
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In this ambitious first novel, author Patrick Kavanagh chronicles a single day--June 24, the Feast of Saint John the Baptist--in a remote village in remote Newfoundland. June 24 is also Sweethearts Day, a day on which young women perform rituals as old as the hills to determine whom they will marry. These two celebrations, one Catholic, the other pagan, serve as the twin lodestones around which Gaff Topsails weaves its complex tale. On the one hand, there is Father MacMurrough, a restless priest who sees his new parish as a punishment and Kevin, an altar boy troubled by notions of God and sin; on the other there is Mary, a young woman in love with love and Michael Barron, a young mute who is starved for it. These characters live out their single day between the twin shadows of two mountains (Gaff Topsails) and an iceberg offshore, their physical isolation a symbol of the spiritual solitude in which they all exist.
Comparisons to James Joyce's Ulysses are, perhaps, inevitable, with the archetypes Kavanagh presents (the fisherman's wife waiting, like Penelope, for her husband to return from the sea), the fragmented narrative, and the occasional stream of consciousness. Like Ulysses, Gaff Topsails is not an easy book to read, but in the end, this novel rewards the patient reader with a crystalline portrait of a day in the life of a small communityFrom Kirkus Reviews:
A wealth of fascinating material and its author's lyrical prose style are the saving graces of this ponderous, overheated first novel from and about Newfoundland. Its actions occur during a single day: June 24, 1948, when local fishermen celebrate the Feast of St. John the Baptist; its characters--all to differing degrees solitaries and seekers-- include a Dostoevskyan mute, Michael Barron, starved for love and consumed by a vision of ``the perfect darkness that waits, just for him''; Michael's younger brother Kevin, a sin- and God-haunted altar boy; Father MacMurrough, a restless priest troubled by memories of earthly love; a nubile girl who follows the practices of local superstition in hopes of securing a husband; a fisherman's wife who indulges in a Molly Bloomlike reverie while awaiting her husband's return; the local lighthouse keeper (``Johnny the Light''), once a hero who rescued an entire ship's crew, now the drunken laughingstock of the community--and on and on thus, in a fragmented narrative that dances among the characters' varied consciousness as the day's round of working and dreaming moves toward a climactic ritual on the beach coinciding with the clarifications of the people's separate ``visions.'' Beneath the twin shadows of inland mountains (named ``Gaff Topsails'') and a huge iceberg that drifts offshore nearby, these individual destinies play themselves out--in a manner all too reminiscent of, and probably derived from, Patrick White's relentlessly symphonic Riders in the Chariot. There are wonderful things here: the long interpolated tale (albeit indebted to Robinson Crusoe) of the Irish castaway who was the area's first settler; superb descriptions of wind, weather, and landscape; and lively dialogue rife with rib- tickling obscenities. Overall, however, this is a novel that strains too hard to impress, and sinks beneath its own weight of allusions and symbols. -- Copyright ©1998, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.
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Book Description Penguin Books Ltd, 1999. Paperback. Book Condition: New. book. Bookseller Inventory # M0140268359