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Nicole Lundrigan: Unraveling Arva

Arva House is an eighteen-year old Newfoundlander. Both her parents drowned. Her father went out in a boat when he was drunk and did not return. Her mother later killed herself. She had been eccentric so it was not entirely a surprise. At the start of the novel, she is living in Upper Island Cove, caring for an old man, Old Man (Joseph) Crane. She has previously worked for Crane’s daughter, Alice Stone, who had three sons but wanted a daughter. When her father’s health got worse, Alice asked Arva to look after him, and Arva readily agreed. In the three months she has been looking after him, Arva has done a good job and rarely ventured out of the house, except for shopping. However, her neighbour, Lolly Young, visits regularly. Lolly lives with her mother, her father, a fisherman, having died when she was a baby.

One evening Lolly takes Arva to the Legion club, where she meets Clive Mercer. Mercer is a school teacher, while his family own the local shop. He would love to leave Upper Island Cove and see the world. He takes Ava for a walk after the dance and, inevitably, tongues start wagging. The next time he takes her for a walk, he essentially rapes her, though she offers no resistance and, indeed, does not seem too concerned, asking only if he is now going to marry her. As she is soon pregnant, he does marry her.

Clive moves in to Old Man Crane’s house, far preferable to living with his family for both Clive and Arva. At the same dance at at which she met Clive, Lolly met a man and is soon pregnant. However, Arva’s mother had two jobs – repairing clothes and helping pregnant women get rid of their baby, so Arva helps Lolly get rid of hers. Clive is furious. She will later be pregnant again and hopes to have the baby but is sent away to a home for unwed mothers, to avoid bringing shame on her own mother.

Arva has her baby, a boy, and Clive, perhaps not surprisingly, finds he is shut out of her life as she focusses on young Henry. Clive’s view of women is that they all talk too much, with the exception of his wife who hardly says anything. Indeed, he feels that he is living alone. Things get worse when Arva faints, when they are out for a walk by the wharf, and she now has a reputation for being delicate.

Things get worse for Arva, as Clive is both unfaithful and a drunk. To avoid scandal, they move to St. John’s, staying in a house owned but not used by Clive’s uncle. Clive’s drinking gets worse, he becomes violent and he loses his job. Arva struggles to get through this, to be her own woman and not just his skivvy and mother of his children. Her fondness had grown for Clive but she would never allow herself to think that she loved him. Nor did she really want it… There was something Clive required that she could never quite grasp.

Apart from Arva’s story, what makes this book interesting are two things. Firstly, Lundrigan writes about Arva but she also writes about the community. The people generally look out for one another. For, example, they are always ready to help Skipper, what they call Old Man Crane, and, indeed, to help Arva when she is deemed delicate. We get to know several of them, from Junior Lynch, who is very large and eats a lot, to Pepper Reid, who is far sadder at the death of his dog than when his wife leaves him for a salesman and who inadvertently helps Arva in her time of need, from Lolly to Doris, Clive’s mother, a devoted but outspoken mother and wife. Secondly, we get a colourful picture of a Newfoundland community, with its jannies and bull bird soup, as well as its idiomatic language.

I have no doubt there are many fine novels from Newfoundland but the best known is written by an American, E Annie Proulx and her novel The Shipping News. I commented on that book a somewhat depressing portrait of a small Newfoundland town which has little going for it but where the inhabitants struggle along, sometime with humour, sometime without and, to a great extent, that comment could apply to this novel, though they are very different novels in other respects.

I did enjoy The Shipping News but also very much enjoyed this novel. Lundrigan knows how to write, how to keep her readers interested and, at the same, she manages to show a great deal of sympathy for Arva in her not always easy life, without being too sentimental, and while painting a portrait of a close-knit community, where things do not always run smoothly and where, as is often the case, alcohol is all too often seen as the way out but which all too often causes more problems.

Publishing history

First published 2003 by Jesperson