There’s a small stack of reviews of New Under the Sun.
You likely don’t have time to read them all. How about I do the author/editor thing and combine parts of several of them into the review-of-all-reviews?
New Under the Sun, the new novel by Kevin Major, offers book lovers three bonuses. First, the cover is beautiful — greens, browns, and blues of land, sea and sky — reminiscent of a Group of Seven painting. Second, the typeface is clean, elegant and a pleasure to read (no small consideration for people who read a lot). Third, this is a novel that insists you settle in to enjoy the story, no matter what else you should be doing (“only 10 more minutes”; “only five more pages” are chants quickly abandoned).
One of the central issues Kevin Major explores in New Under the Sun is a question poet John Newlove posed many years ago: “Whose land this is, and is to be.” It’s a question that concerns all of us: Newfoundlanders, aboriginal people and subsequent immigrants, including the recently arrived boatload of Tamil refugees.
Major’s fascinating exploration of this matter begins with the return of Shannon to the Rock. She’s a Newfoundlander who went as far west as possible to escape her family history, but Vancouver’s employment and romantic options sour and she accepts a job with Parks Canada to reassess the Viking site at L’Anse aux Meadows and the 7,500-year-old archaic burial site at L’Anse Amour in Labrador. The “return” is also a chance to rediscover her roots. Shannon will eventually meet and become involved with Simon, a teacher of mixed blood who wants the Viking sites reinterpreted to reflect the presence of and contact with the various indigenous peoples.
Before Shannon’s awkward re-entry has progressed very far, a new narrative unfolds, that of Nonosa, leader of the Kanawashish tribe in Labrador, who first discovers the coast and its marine riches. Nonosa’s good fortune, which he is willing to share with kindred tribes, angers his cousin and rival clan leader, Remesh. The story of Nonosa and his daughter lays the groundwork for an eventual migration of one of the tribes across the waters to Newfoundland.
The third narrative concerns vain, ambitious and pompous prig William Cormack, born in Newfoundland to a Scots family. Believing he is doing her, himself and history a favour, Cormack has Shawnadithit, the last surviving Beothuk, removed from the welcoming family home of the Peytons into his own care so he can extract information about her doomed tribe.
Their stories are equal parts historical fact and flights of fancy, and the writing … paints a bleak, beautiful picture of a land where a person can resemble “a fish washed up on rock” and houses are painted “fog-burning yellow.”
Each narrative is compelling in its own way: Nonosa’s story is unashamedly florid, for example, while Shanawdithit’s, as told through the eyes of Cormack, is a stark history of genocide.
Major’s research seems thorough, and its use supple, as he constructs the various formats of these texts, which animate the novel — as does the fact that the characters sometimes dismiss them as unrealistic. It is fun to see Major play with this structure of books-within-books.
This novel, engaging both Major’s narrative skill and his interest in provincial history, makes for his strongest work in years — which is saying something.
Buying for a book lover this holiday season? Check out our gift guide to the 10 best books for the CanLit fan on your list.