The Town That Forgot how to Breathe by Kenneth J. Harvey

Secker & Warburg, 2004, 473pp, £12.99
reviewed in Vector 238, November-December 2004

It is tempting to imagine that we have forgotten the difference between so-called mainstream and so-called genre fictions. A few years ago we had to invent terms like magic realism and slipstream to account for those books that employed fantastic effects though they felt mainstream, or that felt fantastic though they bore no overt genre influence. Nowadays we don’t need to bother, books criss-cross the literary borders as the story takes them, and it may even be that the Canadian author Kenneth J. Harvey recognises nothing unusual in the way his superb novel shifts across literary boundaries as easily as he portrays the supernatural slipping into mundane reality.

These days we are only too aware of the crisis in the fishing industry as shortages of fish stocks and international regulations deprive ancient communities of their industry and their purpose. Exactly the same strictures are affecting the industry across the Atlantic, and especially in the small Newfoundland fishing community of Bareneed. Stripped of everything that has held their community together, the proud inhabitants of this little village succumb, one by one, to a mysterious breathing disorder. Some simply stop breathing altogether and die, others survive precariously in an iron lung and, in odd moments of lucidity, ask such questions as: ‘What am I?’

So far, so existential; but then stranger things start to happen. At first these are like flickers of light caught out of the corner of the eye. Harvey is in enviable control of his material, keeping us guessing for well over half the book: did I really see that? Is that actually what’s happening? Joseph Blackwood is, of all things, a fisheries officer: he comes to Bareneed with his daughter, Robin, for a holiday in the town he came from. They rent an old house on the edge of town; meet an old lady, Miss Laracy, who used to see fairies but does no longer; and Robin makes friends with a slightly older girl called Jessica. But Jessica, the daughter of the fey artist who lives next door, has been dead for a year, killed by her own father.

When Joseph takes Robin fishing off the town jetty they catch a strange fish which disgorges a doll’s head. Not long after an albino shark is caught, and in its belly is a full human head. Joseph’s uncle, a doughty old character who doesn’t have time for these official restrictions on his lifelong occupation, takes his boat out fishing and meets a mermaid. Then the sea starts to give up its dead, the first of them a well-preserved man in 17th century dress. With the ancient dead lying in a makeshift morgue and the modern townspeople struggling for breath in the hospital, it is Miss Laracy who sees the connection between them, observing the spirits hovering above the bodies desperately trying to reach their modern descendents. The long tradition by which the very life of the town is tied to the sea is thus made manifest.

The military arrive to close off the town. Their commander believes he has historical evidence that such psychological phenomena presage a major tidal wave. Miss Laracy, meanwhile, is convinced that the microwave radiation emanating from military installations overlooking the town are slicing through the spirits of the dead, which is why she has been unable to talk to the fairies for so long. On the other hand her friend Tommy, an idiot-savant whose paintings have predicted all the wonders that have been visited upon Bareneed, seems to be operating on the belief that the coming tidal wave can be deflected by reuniting the souls of the afflicted with their historical links to the sea. Thus three explanations, the psychological, the science fictional and the supernatural, interweave. None on its own is sufficient to account for the events we witness, yet somehow together they make a sort of sense. And as these greater forces build towards the spectacular tidal wave of a climax, on the human level Robin is brought near to death by her ghostly friend and Joseph finds himself savaged by a supernatural dog as he fights to bring her back into the land of the living.

For perhaps its first third, The Town that Forgot how to Breathe reads like a fairly straightforward mainstream novel, then, without any noticeable shift in gears or change in tone, the fantastic starts to pour into the book so that by the end it is almost overloaded with the supernatural. Yet never once does Harvey betray, by even the slightest change in his voice, that this is not a conventional realist novel. And it is that sure narrative voice which allows him to control the abundance of fantastic invention and make this such a stunning achievement.