Back then it was spring. He had a truck. A girl had given him a picture for his wallet.
1982 starts well for Guy Boucher. But before long he feels the need to move to the town of Big Harbour to get away from his school, family life, and most of all "the supreme and utter retardation of my existence which mostly takes the form of Isadore".
An Acadian adolescent oppressed by boredom and poverty, Guy is made even more miserable by uncle Isadore who lives with Guy and his mother in exchange for use of his pick-up truck. Isadore is determined to make a man of Guy by feeding him drinks at age ten, coaching him to be an aggressive hockey player, and teaching him to box and not flinch when he's hit. Fighting is an accepted way of alleviating the tedium of small-town life, and violence finds its way into hockey games and school dances and bars.
Isadore is not an ideal role model, but he's the only man in the house since the departure of Guy's father. Isadore once moved away to make something of himself, but now is looked after by his sister, spends his disability cheques on booze, is prone to violent tantrums, and yet commands a certain local respect. He waxes eloquent on family values, loyalty and "being a man". He is a large, confident man, a natural storyteller, and people like to follow him. But in spite of his speeches, he is only concerned with himself, ignorant of the needs of others.
Driving the truck to a dance one night, Guy meets the lovely Corinne Fortune. Corinne also has a physical power that makes people want to share the glow of popularity. Like Isadore, Corinne is manipulative, and a compulsive liar who makes up stories for her friends to fulfil her need to be the centre of attention. Infatuated with her, Guy has no idea what trouble she will get him into. Soon there are two older guys hunting him down, and everyone in town believes he deserves it. Big Harbour is not all he hoped it would be.
Saints of Big Harbour shows Guy's story from shifting points of view, from Guy to bookish Pam to the schoolteacher Alison. The narrative is populated by a host of lively characters, such as second cousin Ronald, who regularly delivers "fresh deersteak and a two-litre pop bottle filled with holy water" to Pam's house. There are drinkers and fighting drunks and bitter ex-alcoholics, including those who attend the inappropriately named Alcoholics Anonymous program at the monastery. Isadore's coaching helps Guy stand up for himself, and in the end he must stand up against Isadore in order to make something of his life. His survival of a hard adolescence makes for a heroism all his own.
Saints of Big Harbour handles the bleak subjects of violence, addiction, small-town mentalities and destructive families with insight, irony and humour, in a compellingly accessible style reminiscent of Roddy Doyle.
“What I look for in writing is something that is really multi-faceted, that’s able to depict life in all its wonder and absurdity at the same time.”
Coady was nominated for the Governor General’s Award for Fiction for her stunning debut novel, Strange Heaven. She received the CAA / Air Canada Award for most promising writer under 30, and the Dartmouth Book and Writing Award for Fiction. Her collection of short stories Play the Monster Blind spent 27 weeks on the National Post Best Seller list, and was a finalist for Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour and for the Rogers Writers Trust Fiction Prize. Her articles, reviews and short stories have appeared in anthologies and magazines across Canada including Chatelaine, This magazine and Saturday Night. She has given readings across the country.
Born in 1970, Lynn Coady grew up in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, in the town of Port Hawkesbury which, she has said, combined the pollution of an industrial town with the fishbowl qualities of a rural one, where everyone knows one another’s business. She didn’t think like everybody else -- “For a long time I thought I was insane.” When she started out writing, literary influences such as David Adams Richards showed her it was possible to write meaningfully about Maritime communities. However, the stories she read about Cape Breton were elegiac and rural, dominated by heroic men; hers were different experiences, and she would create what Georgia Straight called “a Cape Breton unlike any we have seen before”.
Having written stories, poems and plays for as long as she could remember, Coady went to Ottawa in 1988 to attend journalism school at Carleton University, hoping journalism would allow her to turn love of writing into a living. But after the first year, she wasn’t invited back, and ended up studying English and Philosophy. “I tend to do badly in things I’m not interested in. That’s why I started taking my writing seriously. I recognized that there was nothing else I had any real interest in.” So she headed to New Brunswick, where her boyfriend Charles was taking a master’s degree.
She spent three years reading and writing. Her full-length play Cowboy Names won a contest and was staged in Fredericton, and a story was picked up by Fiddlehead’s 50-year anniversary edition. Then a publisher expressed interest in her novel in progress. The book was nearing completion when she landed a fellowship to the creative writing program of the University of British Columbia in 1996. “I looked at it as a two-year writing sabbatical where I tried to avoid my obligations as a student and just write.” In 2000, after being nominated for the Governor General’s Award for Strange Heaven, she was invited back to be writer-in-residence at University of British Columbia’s Green College.
In Strange Heaven, she explored the effects of religion and tightly knit communities on the development of a young woman, drawing on elements of her own life. Coady left home pregnant at the age of 18, expected to give up the baby and carry on as if it had never happened. She returned childless and wiser, and only a few years later began to explore her experience in fiction, using her memories of oppressive, hypocritical attitudes towards women and sex. “Being a pregnant teenager set me off on the philosophical path that I eventually went down. It blew society wide open for me.” Strange Heaven also examined the experience of being an adopted child, as Coady was, being raised to “feel the pride of kinship” while feeling physically out of place.
In her second book, she continued to write about Cape Breton, although some of the stories contrasted Maritime communities with the urban Canadian west. She has lived in Vancouver since her mid-twenties, but still finds rich territory to mine in Cape Breton, and increasingly enjoys peppering her dialogue with the Gaelic-inspired accent. “Writing something set in British Columbia makes me feel like a fraud, because I’m not as sure of the surroundings or the feel of the place. It’s like renting someone’s house, furnished, so that the place means nothing to you and the furniture means nothing to you.” Moving away from Cape Breton allowed her to write about it, giving her a setting she understands deeply in which to explore the vulnerabilities of people everywhere.
Now, with her third book being published internationally, she is pleased to be able to write full-time, without having to bother with minimum-wage jobs, such as the $5-an-hour job she had in a Saint John day-care. She also enjoys feeling confident that she must be doing something right. “When you’re a struggling artist and you’re not getting any kind of affirmation or any kind of approval, that’s when it’s hardest to be an artist, but that’s when it’s most important to keep doing it.”
From the Hardcover edition.
“The violent colours of small-town life in Saints of Big Harbour are overlaid with a sheen of weird tenderness and wry humour. Coady takes us to the depths of isolation where her groping characters fight their loneliness with booze, brawls and self-delusion. Compelling and complex, this book is a page-turning delight.” -- Eden Robinson, author of Monkey Beach
“Coady swerves with a hardy veteran’s knowing … the artful details and nuance of Coady’s renderings of the archetypal dilemma confirm that her work is among the most noteworthy in the country.” -- National Post
“Coady has a lively talent, writing with curiosity and warmth about the heartrending tangles of human connection.” -- The Globe and Mail
“It’s a miracle when a book as good as Lynn Coady’s comes along. Saints of Big Harbour is as good as it gets. . . . A masterpiece of comic hysteria . . . bitterly funny . . . the inventive, energetic writing grips you by the neck and hauls you into the world of Big Harbour.” -- The Calgary Herald
“Lynn Coady is a brilliant new voice in Canadian literature.” -- David Adams Richards, author of Mercy Among the Children
“Lynn Coady has created two of the more memorable characters in recent Canadian fiction. . . . Amazing.” -- The Toronto Star
“Lynn Coady is the best young writer in Canada.” -- The Gazette (Montreal)