The Shipping News

Collected Works: Literature


The Shipping News

by Annie Proulx

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A man drives up the west coast of the Great Northern Peninsula, his two daughters, his aunt, and her dog in tow. They roll over ‘fissured land’, past ‘cracked cliffs in volcanic glazes’. Nearing their destination, they are left to seek accommodation when the road presents problems. One of the young girls announces that she wants fried chicken to eat in bed, and the aunt begins to lose her patience. Caught between, the man tries to reason with them, swept up in ‘the familiar feeling that things were going wrong’.

We follow this dysfunctional group to Newfoundland from upstate New York, as they seek a fresh start. Against the bleak, craggy expanse of the Canadian island, strained relationships smoulder, burning into the ice of a small town called Killick-Claw. Quoyle, the father, struggles to bury the memory of his ex-wife and stumbles upon strange secrets about his ancestors. The plot is underpinned by rising tension, with the mundane haze of existence punctuated by dramatic occurrences that break the surface.

Throughout, Annie Proulx deploys sharp descriptions that bring us vividly into this world, particularly as seen through Quoyle’s perspective. Every sentence is stripped bare, emptied of relative pronouns and conjunctions, left minimal and blunt. As the family finally beholds Newfoundland’s rugged outline, we are fed bracing evocations: ‘On the horizon icebergs like white prisons. The immense blue fabric of the sea, rumpled and creased.’ As the mist ascends, ‘Blunt fogbows in the morning tip around the bay.’

The novel’s steady pace and attention to detail allow the reader to form an intimate relationship with its cast of kooky characters. While its mood is sometimes sombre, given to ominous imagery, this leaning is offset by comedy. We are amused by the eccentricities on show, the whims of the siblings, and the unpredictable world within which the family members find themselves. The exhilarating moments of The Shipping News stand in sharp contrast to its banalities, searing through snow to thaw life’s frozen daily routine.

Words by Sophia Martin-Pavlou

More to discover

You can read an excerpt from The Shipping News on the Simon & Schuster website. James Naughtie has interviewed Annie Proulx for BBC Radio 4's Bookclub, as have John Detrixhe for Bookslut, and Christopher Cox for The Paris Review.

Proulx contributed to the By the Book column for The New York Times in 2016. Further interviews from this year include those by Cressida Leyshon for The New Yorker, Lucy Rock for The Observer (UK), and Jennifer Maloney for The Wall Street Journal.

Question of the day

Which books about dysfunctional families would you recommend, and why?
Let us know on Facebook, Patreon, or Twitter.

Fun Home by Alison Bechdel. Makes no concessions and takes no prisoners: dysfunctional childhood, adult intellectual analysis, and compassion. (→)

– Emma Donoghue, author of 'The Wonder', 'Frog Music', and 'Room' (via The Brief →)

A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian by Marina Lewycka. Lewycka’s farcical family feud disguises its dark undercurrent of European history. (→)

– Emma McKinlay, Silent Frame Sub-Editor (via Patreon →)

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