"Valentine's Day, 1982: a terrible storm rages off the coast of Newfoundland. On the Grand Banks, the Ocean Ranger, the world's mightiest drilling rig, is pounded by waves more than 20 metres high. At the height of the storm, the "indestructible" rig begins to tip over, then capsizes. All 84 men on board — 56 of them from Newfoundland — perish. It is Canada's worst tragedy at sea since the Second World War."
It is twenty-eight years ago today, February 15th 1982, since the Ocean Ranger sank with the loss of all lives, and thoughts must surely be with the families of those who were lost who will doubtless be reliving much of the trauma of that night throughout this day.
With my mind firmly transported to Canada slightly more than usual right now for the Winter Olympics, when we all suddenly become experts on curling and bobsleighing, Lisa Moore's latest novel February published by Chatto & Windus seems like a doubly appropriate book to mention today.
Helen O'Mara has lost her husband Cal in 1982, at the age of thirty, in the Ocean Ranger tragedy. With three small children and pregnant with her fourth, Helen is forced into the combined minefield of widowhood and single-parenthood.
The novel begins a quarter of a century later when Helen receives a phone call from her son John, travelling home from Australia, who breaks the news to Helen that after a brief one week fling he has made a girl pregnant. Thus follows John's own complex reflections on fatherhood and all its inherent responsibilities to be considered in the light of his own childhood grief , whilst Helen is also forced to reflect on her own loss in order to work out how best to help John.
The novel weaves back and forth in time slowly revealing the full extent of the tragedy and the profound implications it has had on the family over the years. Occasionally obvious, frequently subtle and Lisa Moore doesn't spell it all out, plenty here for a reader to work out for themselves.
A book I would recommend to anyone cast adrift in the territory Helen was, A Parent's Guide to Raising Grieving Children by Silverman and Kelly...
'It is tremendously disorienting to return to the life you once had, minus your partner, because in many ways that life does not exist any longer. You are now living between a tomorrow that will not happen and one that you could never have anticipated.'
Phyllis Silverman and Madelyn Kelly go on to suggest that
' After the death of a spouse, the structure of your family life cracks in some ways and crumbles in others. You won't even know where to begin to reassemble some order..'
It is this cracking and crumbling and reassembling that Lisa Moore focuses on so astutely in February as Helen mourns her loss. Frequently, amongst other things, reliving how she imagines Cal's final moments to have been whilst simultaneously agonising over the outcomes of the official enquiry and damning safety report. But Helen consistently focuses on her children too as John, Cathy, Lulu and Gabrielle become the 'fully-fledged mourners' that Silverman and Kelly outline, but still within the family setting,
'...the place that children learn how to deal with others, develop relationships, discover a sense of who they are..'
It is in some ways this learning that is put to the test and perhaps John's adult dilemma becomes the ultimate test of how well Helen has achieved a future, created that 'tomorrow' for herself and her children.
Only many years after the tragedy is Helen able to see that
'a blow had been struck bull's-eye, without warning, and it had scarred ...'
No matter what else is happening children need the reassurance that, in the words of Silverman and Kelly,
'this family that has taken a blow, but is not broken,'
and watching Helen hold her family together makes for incredible and very moving reading.
February is a book about the excruciating pain of grief and loss, about tragedy and its long-term impact, about family and love, solitude and loneliness, memory and so much more, yet for all its inherent sadness it's also full of moments of hope and happiness. There can be no easy way to end a book like this, in fact it could all have gone horribly wrong, but to my mind Lisa Moore achieved something quite beautiful and completely perfect in the final pages, the significance of which will not be lost on anyone who decides to read this one.
You might want to cry for Helen...well I did.
I had heard of Lisa Moore, a Canadian author who lives in St John's Newfoundland and perhaps grew up within a community that will never have forgotten the depths of sorrow associated with the Ocean Ranger tragedy. Much like anyone who lives in and around Cornwall who will never forget the night of the Penlee Lifeboat disaster and the tragic loss of the Solomon Browne just a few weeks earlier on 19th December 1981. Each year the harbour lights in Mousehole (Mouzell) are switched off for an hour in memory of the crewmen who lost their lives, all were from the village.
I'd finished February, and scribbled my little pencil thoughts in the book as usual.
Reflecting on the book afterwards, and thinking as I am about Virginia Woolf again at the moment for various reasons, into my mind came the basic ideas from an essay I wrote years ago about Virginia Woolf's painterly writing style.
As I read I'd had the sense that Lisa Moore was brushing in the detail as if this book was a finely executed watercolour. No blobs of oil paint here, these are delicate strokes of careful observation that gave me the sounds and the smells and the emotions of the book, the real feel of it. Often those seemingly obsolete moments in life, frequently glossed over but added in here to bring the novel to life, so perhaps it was no surprise to find that Lisa Moore had studied at the Nova Scotia School of Art and Design and had been intent on a career in the visual arts before becoming a full time writer.
Now, without wishing to cast a single aspersion on anything artistic Lisa Moore might have produced, which would probably have been brilliant, I have to say excellent career move and I'm going to backtrack now and find her first novel Alligator.
Does February qualify for the Orange Prize longlist?
If so I really would love to see it there.