Lisa Moore: February (2010)


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.

23 thoughts on “Lisa Moore: February (2010)

  1. Not to my taste but never mind. I read a passage somewhere recently that explained that if you ‘lose’ someone suddenly or unexpectedly (they die, run off, disappear, terminate the relationship at its height) before it runs its natural course, then it is much harder to forget since it’s ‘interrupted.’ That seems like a good point.

  2. Nice review, Caroline. I liked very much what you said about how the story moves back and forth across time in the way we think about our own lives. Glad to know that the story had a happy ending. I didn’t know about the Ocean Ranger disaster. I need to read about it. It looks like a really sad event. I haven’t read many Canadian authors and so Lisa Moore is a new discovery for me. Thanks for writing about this beautiful book.

    • I hadn’t heard of that disaster either. It seems very sad. Thye didn’t stand a tiny chance and there was even a ship close by who saw them all go down.
      She writes beautifully. I really liked the approach of moving back and forth in time.

  3. This sounds wonderful. The title Alligator sounds vaguely familiar, probably because it won prizes. Thanks for bringing this writer to my attention.
    This cover is much better than the one on (US).

    • I could imagine you would like it. It’s very well done. Very subtle. It could have gone wrong, been to tacky or too sentimental but she avoids all that.
      I found it very true and moving.

  4. I managed to misread the first date as 1892, so was a little disoriented in the story – but I sorted out my mistake before the end! I confess I haven’t read many Canadian authors, but have enjoyed them when I do (Carol Shields and Margaret Atwood spring to mind). The author I really want to get to is Jane Urquhart, though. I’m determined to get to her this year.

    • I think some of the best reading experineces these past two years were either Canadian or Australian authors.
      I love Jane Urquhart and I’m pretty sure you will like her as well. I haven’t read a lot by her but what I read was poetical and haunting. She’s also a writer who should be read slowly.
      They are real stylists the Candian writers I’ve read so far.
      I totally forgot that carol Shields is Candian as well.

  5. I have this and think I will read it for the challenge in the next round. I remember when you were reading this before and you seemed uncertain about it, so I left it in my own pile for later. I’m so glad you liked it in the end (timing really can be everything with some books). I think it is a story I can relate to very much myself at the moment–the whole idea of being alone and no longer feeling young or attractive and knowing most people look right past you…. I think I am going to go dig out my copy in anticipation of next month (am finishing the first Louise Penny mystery and that will wrap up the challenge for me this time around.).

    • I struggled with it at the time. It’s not an after work book. I wouldn’t call it difficult either but it demands attention.
      I ended up liking it a geat deal and I loved how she wrote about Helen feeling so young but being perceived as old and uninteresting.
      This feeling of slowly becoming invisible is quite painful and something we will all have to face sooner or later, I suppose.
      She writes with a lot of compassion.

  6. This is not the kind of book I like to read, not because it’s bad just not my cup of tea….However I need to point out that I like the way Helen moved on after loosing the one she loved. Lucky I read your review after I finished reading my last book…it just doesn’t make sense to me when someone decides to die after loosing someone (tho I know there are many in reality who did suicide because of that), feeling sad yes but still move on.

    • I agree, this wouldn’t be your cup of tea but the ideas are still interesting.
      I liked that it took her so long to move on. I find it important to accept that not everyone moves on right away but that there is always the possibility.
      She needed a very long time to process it all.
      I have never been in the situation that someone I loved died, so I don’t know how it feels. It’s a terrible idea but suicide….

  7. I’ve never heard of her. I’m not sure this is for me though for the grieving part but I’m interested in the part about Helen dealing with her age.

    Two thoughts came to my mind, in addition to the inevitable ones about how awful it must be to lose someone in such a tragedy:

    1) this cover is terrible. (and the American one too) Corny and screaming “book for women, book for women!!” Yuck. Look at the one by 10:18, far better I think. These marketing guys are good, aren’t they? The French cover appeals to the French reader. 🙂

    2) What could Helen expect from a bloke who chooses Heathcliff for his internet name?

    • I thought the same about the covers. I hunted around but they were both so bad. The German and the French cover are much better. I would say I prefer the German one.
      That marketing for a book written by a woman with a female protagonist is sadly pretty typical.
      I think if you are a bit naïve you might assume Heathcliff is a romantic which is a cliché but still, you don’t suppose, he will just look at you and leave.

  8. Pingback: Best Books of 2013 | Beauty is a Sleeping Cat

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