It is too often the case that those interested in travel writing neglect fiction. Yet we all claim to uphold the definition that travel writing is about “character of place,” which fiction such as Wayne Johnston’s often fulfills more completely than any number of travel narratives. Fiction and memoirs by a native delve deeply into the nature of place; narrative by an outsider can only ever skim the surfaces. If you plan on traveling to Newfoundland, or are just curious, I can’t recommend Johnston’s books highly enough.
Johnston, who expanded onto the international literary map with his novel The Colony of Unrequited Dreams and memoir Baltimore’s Mansion, is a native of Newfoundland, and the island figures prominently as a character in his books. Baltimore’s Mansion was, hands down, one of the best memoirs I have ever read, one that drew the reader into breathing the very air of Newfoundland; The Colony of Unrequited Dreams set us in the rich, embattled history of the island’s struggles for survival and independence, and the influential people that shaped its character.
The Custodian of Paradise fills in another half of the story told in Colony. Main character Sheilagh Fielding is like Newfoundland itself: fiercely independent, lonely, a little introverted, proud, and made of the kind of beauty that is best left untamed. The novel opens with Fielding as an adult escaping not only society but her own haunted past. With trunks full of old notebooks and the booze that has nearly destroyed her health, she escapes to a solitary rock of an island long ago deserted by its inhabitants. From there, she reviews her past with narrative that is as riveting as it is strange, and waits for a stranger, a man who has tracked her steps for nearly twenty years.
A book like this can only be written well — here, even masterfully — by a person who is part and parcel of the land he or she comes from, an author who follows the Willa Cather precept that writers’ best works should come from the land beneath their feet, from the landscape that created them. Johnston has written other, lighter novels, but this one, like the rest of his best work, exudes the lonely, proud island on every page.
The Custodian of Paradise came out in Canada last fall, and is being released in the U.S. and U.K. this month.