Saturday, November 08, 2008

Barnacle Love by Anthony De Sa

Like Wayson Choy and David Bezmozgis before him, Anthony De Sa captures, in stories brimming with life, the innocent dreams and bitter disappointments of the immigrant experience.

At the heart of this collection of intimately linked stories is the relationship between a father and his son. A young fisherman washes up nearly dead on the shores of Newfoundland. It is Manuel Rebelo who has tried to escape the suffocating smallness of his Portuguese village and the crushing weight of his mother’s expectations to build a future for himself in a terra nova. Manuel struggles to shed the traditions of a village frozen in time and to silence the brutal voice of Maria Theresa da Conceicao Rebelo, but embracing the promise of his adopted land is not as simple as he had hoped.

Manuel’s son, Antonio, is born into Toronto’s little Portugal, a world of colourful houses and labyrinthine back alleys. In the Rebelo home the Church looms large, men and women inhabit sharply divided space, pigs are slaughtered in the garage, and a family lives in the shadow cast by a father’s failures. Most days Antonio and his friends take to their bikes, pushing the boundaries of their neighbourhood street by street, but when they finally break through to the city beyond they confront dangers of a new sort.

With fantastic detail, larger-than-life characters and passionate empathy, Anthony De Sa invites readers into the lives of the Rebelos and finds there both the promise and the disappointment inherent in the choices made by the father and the expectations placed on the son.

I mention all the time how I am not a big fan of short stories. I prefer novels for the most part. I have read a few short story collections that I have loved, so don't get me wrong, but for the most part I avoid them. One exception I have discovered that I don't mind is short story collections where the story is all inter-connected. Then, it is like a novel and I normally get all the facts that I am left wondering about with regular short stories. Barnacle Love is that kind of book. I was not really sure about it, I think I might even have mentioned it back when the Giller-nominees were announced, but I decided to take a chance on it and I am glad that I did! It is now short-listed for the Giller, and while I was not blown away by it, I found it to be a good read.

When you think about Canada, we are really a country made up of other countries. We are all immigrants in some way, even if it dates back generations. (With the exception of full-blooded Native Canadians, of course). So, in many ways, these novels about immigrant life and their experiences starting out in a new country are all of our stories. It might have happened a few generations back, but members of our families came to his country with a dream and a hope to one day have it become reality. They came to a strange place where they didn't know the language, had very little money, almost no material possessions. They just had a wish for a better life for them and their family. This ideal of making a better life is one of the ideas behind this collection of short stories.

The main idea behind the book, though, is the relationship between a father and a son. The father comes to Canada under dangerous circumstances from Portugal with the hopes of rising above the circumstances he was raised in. His mother had high hopes for him, they were just not the same hopes that he had for himself. He has remained in Canada, though, and continues to dream for a life that seems always out of his reach. Manuel is the narrator for the first few stories in the book. Then, his son takes over. Antonio tells his entire families story the way that he hears it and observes it. His father wanted so much more, but he seems to be stuck and not really sure how he is supposed to capture his dreams. His family is trapped under his own depression.

I think the thing that I like best about this book is the title. It really is so true. As one of the characters in the book says: 'My husband used to say that men are all barnacles. A barnacle starts out life swimming in the ocean. But, when it matures, it must settle down and choose a home.' This is actually true to most forms of relationships. We are free for a while, and then we have to choose where we want to spend our mature years. It is very fitting for the relationships that are shown in this book. I think it is a perfect title for the book. Sometimes I am left trying to figure out why authors decide the titles that they decide on for their book, but this one, I am just left thinking...

A good book. I haven't read any of the other short-listed books, so I can't say much of its chances for winning, but I do recommend it. I am just not sure what to say about it...

My thanks to Random House for sending me this book!

This also counts for The 2nd Canadian Challenge, Eh!


  1. Excellent review! You captured the essence of the book beautifully! I also enjoy the book a lot.

  2. Sometimes, when the stories are connected like this, I'm not sure how the decision to call it a short story collection versus a novel is made. Certainly the father's quest for a better life in Canada runs the length of the book. I enjoyed it, whatever it was.

    My review is here:


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