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Tuesday, 12 October 2004 00:00

A community's existence in peril

Books
The Town that forgot how to breathe

THIS is a strange and disconcerting novel concerning events which take place in an isolated fishing town in Newfoundland, writes GLEN BAKER.

It is overwritten and too long for its subject. Certainly, some of the tension is dissipated by being drawn out.

Joseph Lockwood and his daughter Robin are visiting the isolated town of Bareneed.

Cold, forbidding, yet ruggedly scenic, the town receives few visitors. The community is stable, close-knit and possesses a potent folk memory.

A mysterious breathing disorder, similar to bronchitis but which cannot be diagnosed as such, strikes the population.

As the illness advances, the patient develops amnesia. The number of sufferers rapidly zooms to three figures.

Strange creatures, known in local folklore but not in reality, are washed up on the seashore.

An albino shark is discovered on the beach. In its mouth is a child's doll. However, the doll is decades old.

Underwater life undergoes a seismic change with, in particular, the fish swimming consistently nearer the water's surface.

Most frightening of all, dead bodies are washed up on the beach.

They are people that have been dead for years, decades even. Eileen Laracy, over 100 years old, is charged with identifying them. Her conclusions are quite chilling.

Finally, the town is threatened by a gigantic tidal wave. The community's very existence is in peril. The old-timer concludes that the inhabitants have lost a fundamental part of their identity, so even the act of breathing has ceased to be automatic.

Having lost this identity, they have lost touch with the spirit world, so the sea is giving up their ancestors to haunt them.

French the naval officer is more prosaic in his attitudes. There must be a rational conclusion, he argues.

Doctor Thompson and the police officer are bewildered, but apply rational methods to combat the surreal crisis.

Robin falls into the sea and is near death. Her parents, frightened by the passage of events, anxiously wait by the bedside in the overflowing hospital along with her old seadog uncle Doug.

As the tidal wave approaches, events reach a climax.

Possibly more suited to a short story, the novel does have its moments.

The cold, darkness and loneliness of isolated Canada is brought alive.

The sea is the most potent thing in the drama. It causes fear, yet is a place of succour, nutrition, a doughty opponent and an object of great beauty.

This tale will not be everybody's cup of tea, but those who prefer an element of mystery in their fiction could enjoy it.

GLEN BAKER

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