Nov 5, 2006
All This Town Remembers by Sean Johnston - thoughts
Who, in the end, owns grief? Is it an intimate, personal experience, or can it be co-opted by the community at large? And when does the act of grieving become an exercise in selfishness?
Sean Johnston does not pretend to be able to answer these questions. But if the Saskatchewan native’s moody debut novel All This Town Remembers is any indication, Johnston lays admirable claim to appreciating the underpinnings of such sorrow.
The town in question is Asquith, Saskatchewan, where the citizenry is abuzz at the arrival of a CBC film crew. The subject of the film is Joey Fallow, a high-school hockey star whose death twenty years earlier has become a defining moment in the town’s identity.
Less than impressed with the excitement is Adam Stieb, Joey’s teammate and best friend. Recuperating from a workplace accident, Adam views himself as “the man with the broken brain,” with a memory “full of gaps like air.”
Adam’s life is one of chronological challenge; “there was no rhyme or reason to what he remembered, and the things he did know…were either more important to him than they should be, or he was too cold to them.”
What Adam does clearly remember is the accident that took Joey’s life. The town’s elevation of Joey to local icon somehow rankles Adam, and he sets about alienating his neighbours with his distaste for what he sees as “endless celebrations of the one dead boy.”
Johnston, 2003 winner of the Relit Award for short fiction for his collection A Day Does Not Go By, displays a true aptitude for creating muted poetry from the mundanity of prairie life. Sentences such as “Her hair smelled to him of beer and bruises” pepper the plot with memorable imagery, yet never overwhelm with pretension.
Johnston is not overtly concerned in deeply examining the despair a single devastating event can immediately inflict upon a mass community. Such an exploration already exists in Russell Banks’ emotionally resonant novel The Sweet Hereafter, a spiritual cousin to All This Town Remembers in both setting and atmosphere.
What more interests Johnston is the effect of time upon such memories, whereby the incident becomes less an occasion of grief, and more a part of the public consciousness. It evolves into something that nourishes the community, but such an evolution denies those immediately affected by the initial event any sense of ownership of their own emotions.
It is this clash between private mourning and public adulation that drives Adam (and Johnston) to try and better define what the memory of Joey’s death should mean. But memory is slippery, especially in Adam’s instance, and cannot be inherently trusted; “To imagine, you revise—it’s the same as anything and begins innocent enough—but you think of yourself as more than you were.”
Johnston has delivered a haunting celebration of the nuances and vagaries of memory, and a cautious examination of small-town insecurities. In it’s own subdued fashion, All This Town Remembers heralds the arrival of a sterling new voice in Canadian prairie fiction.
First printed in The Winnipeg Free Press, November 5, 2006.