Award winning author Donna Morrissey revisits the hardscrabble Newfoundland outport world of her 2009 book Sylvanus Now in The Fortunate Brother (2016, Viking) her sixth novel. The Fortunate Brother is Kyle Now who has recently lost his beloved older brother Chris in an oil well accident in Alberta. This accident has ripped the family apart, Chris being the oldest and most favoured of the Now family (which also includes a daughter, Sylvie). Sylvanus has turned to drink, and Kyle has somewhat too, neither of them having an emotional outlet for their suffering. The mother, Adelaide quietly suffers her loss (she had lost three babies in childbirth previously) and soon has her own health issue (breast cancer) to deal with.
“At times Kyle cursed Sylvie and Chris both. For leaving him torn between two grieving parents whose desired end could never be found in him. For his feeling lame because there wasn’t enough of him to fill their hearts. Times he wished for a sword to cleave himself in half: one traipsing behind his father, keeping him from the loneliness of pain, the other shadowing his mother, helping her cleanse her house of grief.”
Playing out against this dramatic background is the recent death by stabbing of Clar Gillard, the local bully and wife abuser. No one in the small community mourns his loss (aside from his loyal dog), but the police must get their perpetrator, so they methodically question everyone, including prime suspects Sylvanus and Kyle both of whom had a recent altercation with Clar just before his murder. There are a number of people who would have been happy to kill Clar if they thought they could get away with it, so there are several suspects and Kyle is hoping that it wasn’t his father who, in a drunken rage may have done it. Or, could it have been his mother, who was seen comforting his widow Bonnie on the night of his murder?
“He watched the seaweed floating on the water, watched again as it settled onto the vacant eyes of Clar Gillard, and wondered if light had ever entered those dark orbs or if he’d been a darkness even unto himself. Doing as he, Kyle, was doing. Fleeing down side roads and detours and never stopping to think that yesterday can never be fled, that its ills and thrills work hand in hand shaping the morning’s path.”
Ms Morrissey’s writing treads the fine line between contemporary and literary fiction like an expert on the balance beam. The story is accessible enough for the casual reader, and the extended conflicting thoughts and emotions of Kyle do not get in the way of the main theme. The theme of a family and its individual members dealing with the loss of a child and sibling has been told many times, but what we have in The Fortunate Brother is the added complication of a murder (as well as Addie’s cancer) being overlaid so that the already beleaugered Now family has even more burdens to bear.
Joseph Boyden, author of the hugely successful book The Orenda states that The Fortunate Son “might very well be her most powerful [novel] to date.” This novel is decidedly powerful. By the first few pages, Ms Morrissey had the main characters defined, the outport mood detailed and the backstory of Chris’ accidental death presented to the reader. She has a knack for getting the language of the north peninsula Newfoundlanders and their idioms authentic enough to add to the atmosphere of the story. When Clar Gillard is found dead, we silently cheered, for Ms Morrissey had already had us firmly set against him for the latest cruel thing he did to Bonnie. That’s good writing. I rated The Fortunate Son 4 stars at Goodreads (3.5 stars rounded up) for a good story, good writing and likeable characters, even if they (and their language) are a little rough around the edges.
The Fortunate Brother was the winner of the 2017 Arthur Ellis Awards for Excellence in Canadian Crime Writing, Best Novel and the winner of the 2017 Thomas Raddall Atlantic Fiction Award.