Thursday, April 10, 2008

The Custodian of Paradise by Wayne Johnston

Not recommended... by Anne-Marie

Having read Colony of Unrequited Dreams a few years ago, I finally picked up this latest book with expectations of being transported to a part of Canada I still have not yet visited (but do have it on my list of place to go before I die). When I read Johnston’s previous book, I thoroughly enjoyed myself and felt better for having had the experience.

Unfortunately, I’m not sure I can say the same for Custodian. While still a good read, it’s certainly not going to be one that will be hanging out on my shelf for many years to come.

The book focused on the story of Sheilagh Fielding, a girl who always seems to be marching to her own drummer regardless of how it hurts the people around her. At the beginning of the book, Sheilagh is living with her father, the town doctor, who has been a shell of his former self since his wife ran off to New York when Sheilagh was only six. Day after day, year after year, he never misses an opportunity to tell his daughter he’s not even sure if he is indeed her biological father (a cruel joke the rest of the town seems to be in on), and he never seems to support or try to understand Sheilagh.

Not that she makes it easy. She has a big mouth, apparently matched only by her big stature – six foot three inches for most of her life. She’s cruel. She’s cold. She’s spiteful. And she never misses an opportunity to speak her mind.

She gets thrown out of school and takes up drinking.

Then she commits the worst sin of all. She becomes a journalist (and gets paid to speak her mind).

Throughout the entire book, Sheilagh never endears herself to one character that passes through her life. Having had to live as some kind of specimen on display whether because of the abandonment by her mother, the crooked leg she acquires following an illness, or her never –ending quest to tell things as she sees them regardless of who she might hurt in the process, Sheilagh never undergoes a miraculous transformation.

And as always with Johnston, his favourite character makes an appearance. While not much more than a character on the outer edges of the story, Joey Smallwood passes through Sheilagh’s life briefly to serve as her one connection to her life and points Sheilagh in the opposite direction to Smallwood just so she can continue to suffer and be miserable.

Her one true regret seems to be a teenage pregnancy, which is kept very quiet and handled very properly by Sheilagh’s mother and father – who are more interested in status than in the feelings of their daughter. While in some ways Sheilagh becomes colder in the face of a cold world, her occasional reflections on her pregnancy and what could have been show there might be a shred of decency in her somewhere.

Unfortunately, this becomes nothing more than a tantalizing morsel that could have perhaps become something. When I reached the end of the book, I felt empty.

But perhaps that was the point. To feel as empty and alone as the character herself. Because I can tell you that when I finished this book, I certainly didn’t feel better for the experience.