It is June 24, 1948—the Feast of St. John the Baptist. On this, the longest day of the year, we are transported to a mythical Irish Catholic parish inhabited by the souls of the living and the dead. With its rich, sensual language and diurnal structure, Gaff Topsails evokes the complex intricacies of James Joyce's Ulysses. But in Gaff Topsails, Kavanagh has created an odyssey all his own. He forgoes the damp, tiny streets of Dublin for the icy expanse of the Newfoundland coast. The inhabitants of this village are caught between sea and soil, between the country of their ancestors and the country of their birth, and between pagan and Christian worlds. They are exiled, yet on this single Midsummer Day, their souls and lives are united by the same forces—sexuality, religion, and nature, and by the island's forefather, an Irish castaway dead five hundred years.
Like Joyce, Kavanagh has given each of his characters a unique voice through the use of interior monologue, but as both the novel and the day unfold, their distinct voices unite to create a choral community. We see the rich undercurrents of this world through the eyes of Michael Barron, a young mute on the verge of manhood. As he and his friends explore a grounded iceberg, he discovers all the danger and mystery that come with impending maturity and overwhelming love. He is also overcome with awakening sexuality as the vision of a beautiful siren—the sixteen-year-old Mary—awaits him on the shore. Mary is wholly consumed with finding her future sweetheart, and explores her own burgeoning sexuality on this holy feast day. Her mother, a ribald figure in the tradition of Joyce's Molly Bloom, sits on her roof, rocks her baby, and, while waiting for her seafaring husband to return, provides running commentary on the lives beneath her. The lonely and isolated priest, Father MacMurrough, yearns for his lost love and for the Ireland he left behind. Michael's pious younger brother Kevin grapples with imagined sins and monsters. And standing watch over these souls, both imaginary and real, is the blindly loyal and tortured lighthouse keeper, Johnny the Light.
All of these inhabitants are infused with the blood of Tomas Croft and Sheila nGira, Kavanagh's mythical Adam and Eve. This pagan "dirty red-bearded monster" and his wife, a legendary Irish princess, permeate the community on this day, five hundred years later. And as day turns to night, it is Kavanagh's lyrical voice and seductive prose that unite this community and ultimately transfigure it. In the words of Peter Landesman, author of The Raven, "Kavanagh [has constructed] less a novel than a living monument."
ABOUT PATRICK KAVANAGH
Patrick Kavanagh was born at St. John's, Newfoundland, in 1950. He was raised at Harbour Main, Conception Bay, one of the communities which inspired Gaff Topsails. At Memorial University and at Duke University he studied the sociology of religion, and during the 1980s worked as staff member and consultant with Amnesty International. He completed Gaff Topsails while living in Beijing, where he helped with the translation of James Joyce's Ulysses into Chinese.
Gaff Topsails received the 1997 Ottawa-Carleton Book Award and the 1998 NewTel Award for Fiction, and was chosen by Booklist as one of the twenty best first novels of 1998. Kavanagh is based in Jakarta, Indonesia and is at work on a second novel, a story about China.