The Custodian of Paradise
In his new novel, Wayne Johnston resumes a story he began in The Colony of Unrequited Dreams and gives us a riveting narrative with Sheilagh Fielding, one of the most memorable and beloved characters in all of Canadian fiction, at its centre.
It is the waning days of World War II and St. John's is a city of wounded or absent men. At the beginning of the novel, Fielding - as she is almost universally known - is headed for Loreburn, a deserted island off the south coast of Newfoundland. She brings two enormous trunks full of provisions that will make possible an extended stay. Gradually, we begin to learn what has brought her, a lame woman with a broken heart, to a wild island populated by horses, dogs and, perhaps, one other person she has never seen. He is the one who has been shadowing her since she made a mysterious pilgrimage to her mother's house in New York City more than two decades earlier.
Fielding's mother had deserted her husband and only child when Fielding was just six years old, and, unable to figure out why a woman would abandon her child, her father was left tormented by the question of Fielding's paternity. She is six-foot-three and nothing at all like him. Is she indeed his child? When, as a teenager and already a renowned wit and eccentric, Fielding falls briefly and terribly in love, she is left, ultimately, more alone than ever. Now, more than two decades later, she is in mourning and hounded by regret. She has no idea how to continue living when she arrives in Loreburn with her trunks and their peculiar contents.
In The Custodian of Paradise, Wayne Johnston gives us a magnificent portrait of his celebrated character. And he does so in a novel of immense storytelling power and grace.
I look out across the water which some days, depending on the size of the pond and the strength of the wind, is whitecapped, the waves all racing away from me towards the distant shore.
The water, because the sky is uniformly overcast, is grey, even black. And all around the water the treeless boulder-littered bog of Bonavista. Blueberry bushes, their leaves a russet red, bobbing in the wind, the few remaining alder leaves crackling like bits of ancient parchment.
-- from The Custodian of Paradise