‘The Town that Drowned’ by Riel Nason

Book Reviews

Reviewed by Victor Enns

Victor glanced glumly at his glass, filled with three fingers of scotch over just the right amount of ice. His instructions had been pretty clear. To be more informative, to be more concise, early in his review, to ensure the book’s writer and the reader would be satisfied quickly rather than have to labour through the review, its pleasures questionable, and its conclusion like unsuccessful Tantric sex.

He sighed. Maybe the previous reviews had all just been self-indulgent wanks. It’s not that he didn’t know how to write a short snappy 600 word review. He did it all the time for the Winnipeg Free Press, and something like that might be more appreciated by the writer, and to be honest, the reader, who found his postmodern phantasmagorical approaches getting in the way of what he really wanted to know. Besides on-line reading was all about brevity. He raised his glass, toasted his bookshelves, enjoyed the whiskey, looked at the novel next to his laptop, and began to write.

The review

Goose Lane Editions is gaining a reputation for spotting good writers early, such as Winnipeg’s own Joan Thomas and her prize-winning debut Reading by Lightning. The Town that Drowned is Riel Nason’s debut novel, though she has had short stories published in prestigious national literary journals such as The Malahat Review, Grain and the Dalhousie Review.  This is an impressive first novel.

Nason’s most compelling accomplishment is the realization of the characters and the relationship of brother and sister, the eccentric Percy Carson, described as being “nine years, two months three and a half-days old. Believe me that’s what he’d say if you asked him,” and his sister Ruby, who is doing the describing. She looks after her younger brother, and their relationship, built on love, is refreshing and distinctly different than the sibling rivalries in other Canadian books this fall such as The Sisters Brothers (deWitt) and Infrared (Huston). The danger for Nason is sentimentalism, love in literature seeming to attract cheese like a mousetrap.

The novel could be categorized as historical fiction, if your idea of history includes the 1960s. The narrative is a fictionalized account of the decision of the government of New Brunswick to construct a damn on the St. John’s River flooding several communities, including the one imagined for this novel. The descriptions of the impact of the flooding on the town are aided by Nason’s own experiences growing up in that very real drama.

The story is straight forward.  Ruby falls through the ice while skating and has a vision of her town completely underwater, which turns prophetic when the government of New Brunswick decides to damn the St. John’s River and “drown” the community. Ruby is ostracized for her vision and the peculiarities of her brother who shows some characteristics of OCD or autism; school is a hell of bullies for them both.

Ruby’s status as an outcast is cast out when her vision proves real and a stranger comes to town. The handsome teenage son of an antiques dealer who has come to pick the bones of the town falls for her, and takes her out. This relationship may remind readers of “My American Cousin” or their own summer romances. Surprised, the bullies are silenced and Ruby gains confidence.

The drama of the flooding is muted, the river an ominous menace with the water rising gradually to subsume the town. More interesting is how the residents of the community respond to this situation. There are opportunists, there are families setting their empty houses alight inviting everyone in town to the occasion, and at least one man who cannot bear the thought of relocation. Resignation is the most common response as it may have been with Manitoba Aboriginal communities swallowed up by the water unleashed by the Northern Flood Agreement, or more recently the flooding of Lake St. Martin First Nation.

The flood chronicle begins in 1965 and finishes in the spring of 1967. Popular cultural references are on the money, and there is nothing fancy to distract the reader from what Nason thinks is important to the story, that is the characters, including everyone in town and the Carson family, and how they deal with this man-made assault on their community-including the town drunk (every small town and every small town novel must have at least one).

Percy Carson, accompanied by Ruby, has been placing messages in bottles, and dropping them from the current bridge over the river every Saturday for three years. He is sensitive and often wails when his order is disturbed. The Carson family is distraught thinking of how Percy will react to the flooding and the loss of his bridge. The book is worth reading to find out.


Phew, done, 600 words, and 200 more left to finish this more TWR tailor-made review.

Victor thinks: I am going to develop a matrix, a marking system, a way to describe the fictions I read as if they were a fine wine or a class assignment (perish the thought).  Now what would the markers be and what weight might they carry? How about:

  • Rhetorical integrity (does the fiction convince the reader of itself)
  • Suitability of the form to the content
  • Story/Plot/Narrative Strategies
  • Surprise and refreshment (renewal or advancement of the form)
  • Character development
  • Use of Language (style, metaphors etc.)
  • Dialogue, and
  • Most rewarding theoretical approach.

I’ll save and refine that for next time, or maybe I can persuade TWR to publish a dialogue I would have with my sister, an avid and close reader, about a particular novel. Anyway this is done and I can now get on with buying books for my family for Christmas.

Goose Lane | 280 pages |  $19.95 | paper | ISBN #978-0864926401

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Victor Enns

Victor Enns makes his home in Winnipeg. His day job supports his poetry-writing and fiction-reading. Boy, Victor's latest book of poems, will appear with Hagios in May.

Copyright 2010 Great Plains Publications/Enfield & Wizenty