$27.99 pb, 234 pp, 9780007265084
Almost two decades ago, when The Shipping News (1993) transformed Annie Proulx into an unlikely literary superstar, one might have been forgiven for thinking she was a writer whose gift lay in quirky depictions of small-town life and in the fetishisation of antiquarian and folk detail.
Such an assumption would have been mistaken. Anyone looking for the outlines of Proulx’s subsequent output would do well to avoid the heartwarming details of Quoyle’s eventual redemption – or even the tangled family histories that bind the novel’s disparate threads together – and turn to the oddly jarring opening pages, in which Quoyle’s wife, the weirdly named Petal Bear, sells their children to a paedophile before being killed in a car accident while fleeing with her lover. While less abbreviated than the staccato delivery of misfortune that has subsequently become Proulx’s stock-in-trade, this sequence captures much that is central to her more recent work: its irritable bleakness, its almost perfunctory attitude to narrative, its unsettling shifts in register, its denuded moral landscapes.