In 1982, the oil rig Ocean Ranger sinks off the coast of Newfoundland during a Valentine’s night storm. Helen O’Mara, pregnant with her fourth child, receives a call telling her that her husband, Cal, has drowned.
A quarter of a century later, Helen is woken by another phone call. It is her wayward son, John, calling from another time zone to tell her that he has made a girl pregnant and he wants Helen to decide what to do. As John grapples with what it might mean to be a father, Helen realises that she must shake off her decades of mourning in order to help.
With grace and precision and an astonishing ability to render the precise details of her characters’ physical and emotional worlds, Lisa Moore reveals the story that unfurls around those two moments.
Lisa Moore is an acclaimed Canadian author whose books are regularly nominated for awards and prizes. She won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for her novel Alligator. Her novel February was longlisted for the Man Booker in 2010. I discovered her when I was looking for authors for The Canadian Book Challenge 6. For those who are interested – Challenge 7 will start in July 2013.
February starts in 2008. Helen receives a phone call from her son John, telling her, he will be a father. John has always been the most difficult of her four children and the news fills her with joy and apprehension and triggers a flood of memories.
Helen has been a widow since 1992 when her husband died. He was working on the oil rig Ocean Ranger, which sank off the coast of Newfoundland during a stormy night. All the men died. It took three days until all the families had the certitude that nobody survived. Helen who was pregnant with her fourth child knew immediately that Cal was dead. They had such a strong connection, she felt that he would not return.
Grief holds Helen firmly in its grasp. For more than 20 years, she still belongs to the love of her life but deep down inside she knows she isn’t cut out to stay alone forever. There is a longing, a yearning. She wants to be touched, feel another person’s presence. At the time of the phone call, Helen has her house redecorated and falls in love with the man in charge of the redecoration.
The book jumps back and forth in time. A scene set in 2008 follows an episode from 1982; the next will take place in 2006 and the book will then move back to 1992 and finally return to 2008. The chapters indicate the year, it’s easy to follow but at first I didn’t understand why she chose this approach until I realized how much sense it made. Imagine you arrive at a crucial point in your life and look back on the years before that moment. I don’t think anyone would do this in a chronological order. We remember this and that, bits from that year, others from another year. That’s how February is constructed. Helen is finally ready to let go of her grief and these intense new feelings bring back the past with a new acuteness.
This is the kind of thing Helen remembers, bits of afternoon that sharpen in focus until they are too bright. Just moments. Tatters. How the kids climbed on Cal. Flung themselves. How they clambered over him. He tickled them. Gave them horseback rides. Told stories. He did the airplane. Lying on his back, his legs in the air, their little rib cages resting on his grey wool socks. Soaring.
February is a quiet, introspective book. Moore captures feelings masterfully and her style mirrors their complexity and depth. Her descriptions of love, loss, grief and hope are intense and powerful, entirely free of kitsch. Helen’s sadness is palpable, her loneliness can be felt.
February tells the story of a woman whose emotional life has come to a standstill. The man she lost was the love of her life and the relationship they shared was strong and deep. It was physical and emotional. There is incredible pain to imagine how he died, sinking into the icy cold water, with no hope to be rescued. Imagining this takes its toll. It’s as if she feels she will betray him, if she lets go of his memory.
When Helen reawakens to her needs, she feels like a young girl inside of the body of and elderly woman. She’s 58 and shocked to find out that she isn’t considered to be attractive anymore. I liked the way Moore showed this, the scenes she chose to illustrate how invisible older women become in our society which only values women who are young and beautiful. Moore shows this with so much compassion, it’s touching and painful at the same time. Here’s Helen after a date with an online acquaintance she’s been writing to daily for three months has gone an unexpected way
‘Heathcliff’ had come and looked at her and didn’t find her attractive. It was so far outside the scope of what she knew to be decent human behaviour that she could not fathom it, though some part of her also knew it exactly. She went to the bathroom and got down on her knees in front of the filthy toilet and puked. The floor of the bathroom had slush all over it and the knees of her nylons were soaked; a single stone dug sharply into her knee. What she was vomiting was the belief that getting old didn’t matter. Because it did matter. It mattered a lot and there was no stopping it, and everything inside her heaved out that idea.
Moore’s achievement is to describe the pain and the loss of the beloved man in an understated way and to pair them with the pain of lost youth and possibilities. This could be a depressing book but it’s not, it’s very beautiful because Helen learns that there may not be so many possibilities anymore but there are still some and life can start anew.
I began February last year but had to put it aside because it’s a book that demands attention. It’s best read slowly as it’s very rich and the style is fresh and diverse. It’s a very authentic book that rings true at every moment. It has what you would call a happy ending but it’s not corny as, in a way, it is a narrow escape. There is always the danger of staying alone and lonely, of spending old age abandoned from life and love.
I liked the idea that Lisa Moore chose a true story, the Ocean Ranger Disaster, and based her novel on that tragedy. Just like the Titanic, the Ocean Ranger was said to be unsinkable. Nobody saw the disaster coming. Does that make it worse? Was Helen better off because she knew right away and with an absolute certainty that Cal was gone while others were still hoping for her husbands and sons to return?
This is the second author I have discovered thanks to The Canadian Book Challenge. And, like Mary Lawson, she is an author I want to read more of. She writes beautifully and with a rare authenticity.