The arresting title of Lesley Choyce’s new book from Dundurn Press* begins to tell the story of Charles Howard, a fifty-five-year-old man with little to show for all his time on earth. No family, no significant other, failed relationships, and out of a job as a journalist since the newspaper he worked for closed down. He’s lost his life’s savings in an altruistic act. Then there’s the unfinished manuscript of a novel collecting dust in his dingy apartment.What was Charles doing on the end of the pier that April morning? Contemplating jumping in the harbour, or just contemplating? Perhaps even Charles is not sure himself. What we do know is that, silently, out of the fog, a woman appears, who intuitively seems to know why Charles is there.
“I get it,” she said with no other words of introduction. “Broken man.”
At first, I thought it was just one of those many voices in my head. But then I looked in the direction from which the voice had come. It was a woman. A good-looking woman at that. All alone. On the pier at 6 a.m. by the misty misbegotten harbour.
“Get what?” I asked.
“Get you. Broken man on a Halifax pier,” she said. And her mouth went up on one corner. Not a smile exactly. An indication of a game. “Oh,” I said. “Stan Rogers. ‘Barrett’s Privateers.’”
The woman is Ramona Danforth, a former actress of some small TV and movie roles, now living on the thirteenth floor (Yes, thirteenth. Perhaps an omen in itself?) of the upscale Richmond Towers on Halifax’s waterfront. From that dramatic meeting on the pier, they progress to having breakfast in a restaurant (she has to buy; Charles has no money) and tentatively start to converse. The dialogues between Charles and Ramona is classic Bogart and Bacall or Nick and Nora Charles (The Thin Man movies). Charles is, of course, enamoured by this attractive fiftyish woman who is treating him to breakfast and is doing his best to not say something stupid. He of course does, but Ramona persists in wanting to know more about Charles while at the same time she reveals bits and pieces of herself. The breakfast is a first date that is not awkward, but comfortable.
“Fifty? You said fifty.”
“It’s a number. Half of one hundred. Happens to be my age.”
“You can’t be fifty.”
“They could have made a mistake on my birth certificate but I do believe I am.”
“You look too young.”
“I’ll accept the compliment. Thank you, sir. You know what they say. Fifty is the new forty. But then forty is the new thirty, etc., etc. Where do you place yourself on the whole chronology issue?”
“Five years your senior, schoolgirl. Fifty-five years before the mast. Too old to be young, too young to be old. Forced into early retirement and pondering each day what will come next.”
Breakfast was over. We’d set out the portraits of our lives, the bare bones, mostly fragments, but we’d both been brave or foolish enough to reveal things personal and important. Pessimist that I was, I expected our little bubble to burst. That momentary friendship, that flirtation, that chance encounter, it had a certain inevitable ending. Or did it?
“I like a man with no money and loads of time on his hands,” she offered.
That caught me off guard. “Oh, and why is that?”
“Because I can probably boss him around. C’mon, we’re going for a drive.”
That drive (in her car; Charles has none) is the key that opens the lock on a Pandora’s Box of issues, both old and new and not only for Charles but for those in his immediate vicinity, as he decides to visit his childhood home in Stewart Harbour. Both of his parents are dead, and the house is long gone (that’s a story in itself) but his father’s old fish shack is still there on the waterfront. His presence does not go unnoticed for long and we are immediately introduced to characters like Rolf, the quintessential Nova Scotian fisherman of days long past and perhaps, more importantly, an opportunist named Brody. Brody and Charles will change each other’s lives in a matter of days and weeks while Ramona looks on, wondering what she has gotten herself into. The stage is set for a well-balanced story of old loves, family, loyalty, responsibility, duty and romance, all set in the small, close-knit and hardscrabble fishing community of Stewart Harbour on the Eastern Shore.
Just as he so masterfully did with his previous novel, The Unlikely Redemption of John Alexander MacNeil, Mr. Choyce balances out all the various intertwined issues so that it is all very convincing, so what we have is not simply a story of an ageing Boomer returning to his past while romancing a virtual stranger with her own baggage but we have a credible Charles-Ramona pairing developed so well that the reader is pulling for them from the start to withstand the trials and troubles of Stewart Harbour. And, as with John Alex in the aforementioned book, there is also a sweet self-deprecating sense of humour about both Charles and Ramona that makes them immediately likable.
The story in Broken Man will resonate with Boomers as they now have some time to reflect on their lives and wondering if going back (in mind or body) to the past is of any value at this point or is it better to move forward. In retrospect, Charles tells us in the Prologue:
If I had been able to see into the future, I may not have gone down to the harbour that morning. I may have continued with my sorry, lonely existence — a man without a job, without a purpose, without a real friend.
It’s telling that Charles says he “may not have gone down” to the waterfront that day. Perhaps Ramona may have said the same thing if she were asked. There’s a lot that unravels in the 300+ pages that follow the prologue.
Mr. Choyce’s writing style has a certain snug (not smug) and pleasant character about it which I felt it slightly masked the more serious undercurrents of this story. Nevertheless, Broken Man on a Halifax Pier is a five-star read, and I am adding it to the 2020 longlist in the Fiction category for “The Very Best!” Book Awards.
Broken Man on a Halifax Pier by Lesley Choyce
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