Been In the Storm So Long

18 January 2017

Been in the Storm So Long
by Terry Jordan
Published by Coteau Books
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$21.95 ISBN 9-781550-506877

I’ve long considered Terry Jordan to be a masterful writer, but if there’s any justice in the literary universe, his latest novel – the epic and historical Been in the Storm So Long – should earn him national award nominations. This captivating story centres on the sometimes discordant rhythms of family and community, the restless and hungry Atlantic, and the music that scores and changes lives. The mesmerizing tale moves with lyricism and grace, transporting readers from a small Nova Scotia fishing village to New Orleans.

Protagonist John Healy is “just another sickly Irish infant begun in Sligo,” whose father moves the family to Canada for a brighter future. Jordan’s characters are imaginative storytellers and dreamers, some with peculiar gifts (ie: John has “the ability to listen to clouds”), and they’ve brought their superstitions across the pond. “There was sorcery everywhere on the water; be wary,” a young John is warned, “and it was left at that.” When a whale beaches on a shoal and the curious come to inspect (and slaughter) it, John’s mother claims that “Pure grief’d be the cause of that,” and wonders “How much sorrow does it take to fill the likes of a poor thing its size.” From then on, John dreams of becoming a whaler.

Jordan deftly creates atmosphere. Odette, a gifted violinist from childhood (and John’s future wife), plays her music from the hills above the village, competing with sea birds. “At times, on the hill, she walked in a fog so calm and thick she could turn and still see the path where the movement of her legs and body had made a cloudy stir.” Odette’s dream is to see the world and “experience music that was not her own.” A third significant character, Daniel Burke, was tragically orphaned as a teen and thus moves in with Odette’s family. Daniel dreams of Odette.

The text is rife with foreshadowing, though the story’s so broad and rich, one would need to return to the beginning to thread all the clues together. On each page the author wields his pen like a poet who knows the secret to mesmerizing readers. Here Jordan describes the all-important weather: “It snowed the sad spring day they sailed, in Halifax, too, the hopeful first morning they arrived in Canada. The air was shaggy with it …”

The tale transports us across borders, generations and cultures. Here’s a gem from a sweaty New Orleans’ dance hall scene: “Shadow shapes – all alphabets of arms and legs – jumped to the music, every face dark-skinned except for his.” Another fine line, concerning John and his precocious son, Gabriel, as they pull in their fish net: “Line upon layer of fish had spilled onto the sand, head to tail to head to tail all the same direction inland, lying there obedient as dogs and so uniformly configured they seemed like the scales on their own dying sides.”

This is a storm-tossed and heart-swelling sea of a book. You should experience it.


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