Thursday, November 22, 2007

Review of Saltsea in Canadian Literature

David Helwig (Author)

Saltsea: A Novel. Biblioasis

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Reviewed by Greg Doran

Saltsea is a “beach-novel” for English Majors. Helwig has crafted an engaging novel that captures the long shadows and soft breezes of summer. The novel is set at the Saltsea Inn on PEI, and it focuses on the various guests at the Inn, their stories, and the past. The Inn is not only the central setting but also the narrative focal point for the novel. Every place has many tales to tell, and Helwig allows Saltsea to tell its stories, both past and present.

The novel has a cinematic quality both in its descriptive passages and its narrative structure. Helwig foregrounds this cinematic quality through Robin, one of the waitresses in the Inn’s dining room, who uses cinematographic language to describe the events at the Inn. Through detailed descriptive passages, Helwig embeds the reader in the environment of the Inn, where there is “a line of weeds and shells at the previous high water mark, and in the middle distance, waves falling in an endless foaming reiteration on a small sandbar.” Helwig’s writing is both poetic and panoramic, and it defines the setting in such concrete detail that it conjures smells and sounds to accompany the images.

Along with its descriptive passages, the novel’s cinematic quality is expressed in its narrative structure. Helwig uses a shifting limited omniscient narrator, similar to a point-of-view camera shot. Each narrative section is focused on the perspective of one of the many characters who inhabits the novel. The narrative focus is often “handed off,” like a baton, between characters. This style of transition creates a multilayered narrative structure designed not to follow a single plotline but to convey a larger sense of place, and the people who inhabit it. Before leaving the Inn, the professor goes to give a gift to Lizze McKellan, another guest. The professor is the narrative focus until he gives her the gift. At that point, the focus shifts to Lizzie. The resulting shift highlights an engaging narrative structure that creates a larger perspective, while still maintaining the intimacy associated with a first-person narrative. This narrative structure is similar to the one employed in Kurosawa’s Rashomon, where the same event is described by several characters. As a result, Saltsea forces its readers to construct the “truth” from these fragments.

The fragmentary nature of the narrative extends into the past, which is an underlying theme in the novel. Furthermore, it is the one theme that ties several of the storylines together. For example, the history of the Inn is explained through the character Barbara. It used to be a summer residence, owned by her American industrialist father, where she came as a child. Later, it was a hippy commune for Barbara as a young adult. Currently, Barbara has returned to the Inn “to find the past.” Barbara is not the only character with a connection to the Inn and its past, but she has the most prominent connection. The excavation of the past is present in many of the plots that intertwine in the novel.

Helwig has created a wonderful novel that captures the experience of summer travel. It is the perfect novel for quiet summer days. The final narrative perspective is given to the young Eleanor, who is newly arrived at the Inn with her parents and siblings, as she plays on the beach. This section is the only one focused on Eleanor, and it suggests that the stories at Saltsea will continue, even though the novel does not.

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