The Wards by Terry Doyle

Al, Gloria, Gussey, and Dana Ward make up a typical family. Al works on rotation in Labrador. Gloria is a homemaker and mother who picks up work at a restaurant now that their children are grown. Gussey is, by all accounts, a bit lost. At twenty-three, he is trying to figure out his path through a haze of weed smoke and family pressure. Dana is a university student “focused on immersing herself into her new life.” As she falls into the rhythms of adulthood, she is terrified of being “dragged backward in time, back to her old bedroom, her father’s halitosis, her mother’s nagging, and her relative lack of autonomy.” Each Ward struggles with individual questions of self-worth and contentment. At the same time, the novel is attuned to the details of communal and familial change and growth. With skill and wit, The Wards by Terry Doyle maps the lives of each character to showcase how different facades of masculinity, motherhood, strength, desire, longing, and compassion can both safeguard and harm in turn.

“Because the novel flows through a variety of perspectives, readers get insight into the pain, uncertainty, and excitement of these moments from different angles.”

One of the standout aspects of the novel is its kaleidoscopic movement through different perspectives. Each of the main characters, members of the Ward family as well as friends who are woven into their household tapestry, gets a say in the events. Every snippet of insight unfolds something new for readers: we are privy to shifts in health as understood by those who are sick and those who are witnessing the sickness; we get insight into labour and codes of interaction in these spaces from those in the role and those on the outside; we get an understanding of family, as a malleable and difficult unit, through reflections on the Wards as well as on their neighbours.

Because the novel flows through a variety of perspectives, readers get insight into the pain, uncertainty, and excitement of these moments from different angles. This approach creates a rounded experience that underscores the complexity of even the most mundane moments, like closing down a cabin for the winter season. For example, we are privy to Al’s expectations, to Gussey’s experience, and to Mark’s interpretation of the space. What develops is a sense of seeing from within and without, as readers move smoothly between characters and gather details about their lives from different outlooks.

One crucial piece of this approach comes from Gussey’s best friend, Mark. His unique perspective on the family builds a sense of depth in their relations. For instance, what for others seems to be an inherent selfishness in Gussey is understood differently by Mark, who worries about how his friend is balancing a new job with a developing sense of loss. These insights are particularly astute because Mark is a poet (though, as readers are told, he would never use this word). His attempts to contain, understand, and set emotions on the page through language runs as a thread throughout.

There are many such threads that pop up or weave together key moments; a focus on fog, for example, as an atmospheric element both literal and metaphorical, or a refrain of desire as Dana works to understand her relationships over time and in different places. Likewise, Doyle centres Newfoundland in a way that balances humour with a potent sense of poignancy. The particular parameters of life in St. John’s are essential to the novel, as place names, area codes, and patterns of staying and leaving structure the events.

At its centre, the novel offers an astute reflection on what constitutes family. What are the bounds or boundaries of family? How are they created and who do they serve? How does a family grow and develop? Can it break, be lost, or be saved, even when it looks like things are falling apart? Though Dana reflects that “Family is family. You don’t get to choose,” the novel questions these blanket statements to show how people, places, and events can be more than one thing and can change over time. Throughout, Doyle crafts an engaging story of love and loss in Newfoundland, and The Wards offers readers dark and humourous insight into a group of people just trying to stay afloat.

Terry Doyle is from the Goulds, Newfoundland. His first book, DIG, was a finalist for the Danuta Gleed Literary Award, the Newfoundland and Labrador Book Award for Fiction, the ReLit Award for Fiction, the Margaret and John Savage First Book Award for Fiction, and the Alistair MacLeod Short Fiction Award.

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Breakwater Books (June 10 2022)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Paperback ‏ : ‎ 240 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 1550819356
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1550819359

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Gemma Marr (she/her) was born and raised in rural New Brunswick. After over a decade away, she is excited to return to the province to teach in the Department of Humanities and Languages at the University of New Brunswick Saint John. Her research focuses on the intersections of place, gender, and sexuality in Atlantic Canadian literature and culture. She is an avid reader and writer who enjoys books from a range of genres and styles.