Our Homesick Songs—Emma Hooper

[I read this 2018 novel in two halves, writing in detail about the first half before reading to the end. Spoiler alert: If you read this running commentary, you will find out everything that happens in the book as I read it.]

12th March 2021
The first half
The title is perfect for this novel’s mood of nostalgic wistfulness. Life used to be that way, the narrative seems to be insisting, but even then we should have seen how it was all slipping away from us. Was it good? Well, some of it was. But we should have seen, all the same.

These are the little people being buffeted by global forces much bigger than they are. Emma Hooper is worrying away at two time-lines, one going from the late 1960s to the early 70s and the other the early 1990s. These are little fishing communities in Newfoundland, and then they’re not, because there are no fish left. It isn’t the fault of the hardworking men and women, living close to the edge, ‘in-boat’ for days and nights on end, or on the shore, worrying, making nets, doing all the things that wives do in these communities. The later time-line has two threads itself, 1992, when there are only a handful of families left and 24 empty houses, and 1993 which, at first, has only covered a single event as the Connor family moves out too. If that’s what they’re doing. Even in the earlier time-line, so far covering five years, the nets become less full every year. And what’s that heaving of the swell under the girl’s rowing boat? The whales coming, out of season? No, it’s one of those big ‘draggers’. We’re in the early 1970s now, and industrial-scale fishing is well under way.

Emma Hooper doesn’t tell it like this. She focuses on the people, their stories, and their songs. The novel opens with a story, and a song is at the heart of it. We come to realise that Finn, the boy telling it, with real-time checks and adjustments being made by his older sister Cora, is re-working the family history into a folk-tale. No surprise there, we also come to realise, when the lives of these people on the margins are so full of mythic-sounding elements. In the story a girl hears the song of a mermaid, sounding low instead of high and sweet. She has always been thrilled by it, and walks over the sea—‘She what?’ asks the sister—‘Because the sea was so thick with cod, brought out by the singing….’ It’s charming, a variant of tales we’ve heard a hundred times. It’s also, this being the kind of place we’re in, true. The mermaid in the story turns out to be no such thing, but their father. And yes, we discover in the earlier time-line much further on in the novel, their mother really did make her way to the singing she used to hear as a fourteen-year-old, and then again five years later. OK, she had to row out, because Finn made up the bit about walking on a sea thick with cod. But, as the novel goes on, we understand the truth behind what he’s saying.

It isn’t a profound point that Hooper is making. But the boy, like everyone else there, is steeped in this tradition of telling the old tales and playing the same songs. He’s an accordion player, learning all the local tunes from a book and, of course, from the oldest woman left in the place. That’s what makes a community, and I guess Hooper doesn’t state this explicitly because she doesn’t feel she needs to. OK. But she’s also reminding us that whatever power these songs and stories have, there are other kinds of power they can do nothing against. Just before the point I’ve reached, with only four households left, Finn calls a village meeting about the new eviction notice that’s arrived. (The 1992 time-line has moved on to early 1993 by now.) The meeting is amicable, and ends in the musical session everyone has come prepared for. Which is lovely, obviously, but the only agreement is that they will only stay put if the fish come back. Which is Finn’s job….

…because, as I said, mythic-sounding things happen in this marginal world. It’s Finn’s way of spending time to take out a rowing boat, both to practise the accordion and, after getting the best Christmas present ever, to fish with his ‘new-old’ rod. It used to be his father’s, and I’m not saying there must have been some magic in it… but, after days and weeks, he catches one. A beautiful cod, the first seen since we don’t know when. They have it for supper, keeping the fresh bones and other parts as proof. From that day on, people take their boats out again, and Finn can count the lights on the boats out at sea. It’s just like when he was little, when he could often count twelve. But the number crept down and down until, of course, there was no point even looking any more. Finn tells it as a nightly story, the lights as stars that have come down from the sky. But he stops telling it, and he doesn’t say the number out loud when Cora asks. Zero.

Stories come up all the time, like the one told by the old woman who teaches Finn the accordion. She tells him about Patrick, who got rid of all the snakes in Ireland. In her version, he starts the stomping and others join in—this is a very community-minded community, after all—and as the snakes swim west they turn into the fish that the people who sailed over with them have been catching ever since. That’s why a Murphy is marrying a Connor, even though—and all the real-life stories confirm it—all Connors are cheats. That means all the Connor men, so the boy with the lovely voice decides he will never fall in love, never marry. Until Martha Murphy rows out to him one night, and he knows he’s lost.

To strip it of the storytelling for a moment. The Murphys are a family of four girls, both parents having ‘drowned’—the catch-all word for any death at sea, including some very nasty accidents Hooper lists. The oldest marries, eventually, and Martha makes something of a living as the maker of the best nets anybody can find. The pictogram at the head of her chapters is a knot. The third sister falls ill just at the time when Martha has met Aidan, the Connor with the voice, and soon it’s time for another story—the journey to St Johns, 150 miles by fishing-boat whose only power is the strength of the rowers’ arms. There’s a storm, obviously, but they survive. They are surprised to find Marianne (?) apparently more well than before. Perhaps her leukaemia is in recession? Perhaps it isn’t leukaemia after all? Or perhaps she’ll be dead soon after all. Whatever, she’s going to live with the male nurse and his sister, the lovely cook who has been making beautifully carved treats for her to eat because, she says, it’s the only way she has of keeping her alive.

Are there as many stories in the later time-line as there are in the earlier one? In the later one, the Connor family as they now are having to face a different kind of harsh reality, as work in the village dries up almost completely. Aidan and Martha are to take turns working in a heavy industrial installation a long way off, a plane journey away. They will be away for one month at a time and, at first, try to pretend to themselves and the children that this won’t be so bad. It is, obviously. Finn listens in on the phone conversations his parents have, but it doesn’t help. Martha, when Hooper takes us to the drilling site, has raised the interest of a man there, John, who can remember when it was all forest. He’s always asking to see her when they ae off-shift, and if she ever says no, Hooper isn’t telling us. What was that about all Connors being cheats? (We never see what Aidan’s up to when it’s his turn….)

Cora—I haven’t written as much about her because Hooper doesn’t follow her so closely as Finn—spends her time in the empty houses all around. She, like her mother perhaps, isn’t a musician or storyteller but a maker. She has always had a violin, but cleaning up a little before the village meeting at their house, Finn has to wipe the dust from the case. What she makes is… what? Fantasy installations, based on the travel books she borrows—and often cuts into pieces—from the floating library. (Education locally is very makeshift. They can do their week’s set work in a single Sunday afternoon, leaving the rest of the week for them to make up their own education for themselves.) Nobody seems to notice that books are going missing, and nobody except Finn knows about the installations. Whole rooms decked out like the Mexican Day of the Dead, or tourist London, or… or enough other places to fill 23 houses. The twenty-fourth is from her own head, a glory of blues and a mix of human artefacts and undersea flora and fauna. It’s Atlantis, and Finn loves it.

And then, after the fruitless village meeting, Cora disappears. Cue everybody doing what they can to find her and get her back, from the voluntary sea rescue service called in from the next island—the village can’t crew its own any longer—to Finn finding his favourite spot and playing the accordion. Which gets wet, and therefore ‘fucked’, according to his old teacher when she sees it. But hey. Anyway, we know Cora is OK because later in 1993 she’ll be on the ferry going west, with Finn and both parents, and he’ll be telling the story of the mermaid’s song. We’ve known that from the start.

16th March
The second half
I’m not overwhelmed by this book. We know almost from the beginning that it’s going to be about loss, and the bittersweetness of the songs and stories we remember (etc. etc.), and so it continues to be. Another thought that I’d had almost from the start is that it feels like a novel written for young adults. The parents, despite some early promise in the 1970s time-line, fade into the background and, frankly, stop behaving like believable adults altogether after a while. Meanwhile, the two enterprising, imaginative children develop their own fantasies of how the future might be, polar opposites in one way—Cora’s is about a life elsewhere, just her and Finn, while his is a fantasy of repopulating the sea with shoals of fish so they can stay in the village forever. It’s these two that Emma Hooper spends most of her time on, the 1993 time-line stretching out beyond 100 unbroken pages, and… I wouldn’t mind so much if it really were a novel for young adults.

But it isn’t. Hooper, I am absolutely sure, is wanting to speak to fully-grown adults about important themes, not so much about how humankind has ravaged the Earth—had she really said everything she needed to about that in the first half?—as about the sadness of the loss of communities. OK, got it. For me, the children’s fantasy adventures add nothing to this, merely offering two equally implausible stories whose combined message is—what, exactly? I’ve no idea. Cora, in best young-adult novel tradition, hitch-hikes to a place where she can blag her way into a job she is able to do unfeasibly easily. In a YA novel, the reader would come to understand how, from the outset, her project is doomed. But Hooper seems to have decided that since this is a novel for adults she can stretch things. There’s a feeling of folksy magic realism about both Cora’s new life and Finn’s project to attract the fish back.

Finn. The old woman who told him the story of Patrick and the snakes, his accordion teacher Mrs Callaghan, has told him a new one about how the seas became populated with fish. He appears to take it as the literal truth. I worry about Finn. Not only does he have the credulity of a five-year-old, he has the moral sense of a child even younger than that. Mrs Callaghan’s story is that the fish needed the sunken ships of the early sailors from Europe in order to have somewhere to breed. So what is an enterprising five-year-old to do? In secret, presumably while his father has his fingers in his ears, he starts up half-a-dozen or so vehicles left behind by families that have left. One by one, over several nights, he drives them out on to the ice-field that the sea becomes in winter. His plan is for them to sink when the thaw comes. He does feel some unease about doing this, even asking his father if it’s OK to use something if the owner isn’t using it. He doesn’t correct him, or clarify anything, when Aidan assumes that all he means is borrowing Cora’s sweater.

Give me strength. In a novel that is supposed to be all about community—I hadn’t been wrong to notice that Mrs Callaghan’s version of the St Patrick story involves everyone working together, because clever Finn has noticed it too by the end—here we have a boy who takes thousands of dollars’ worth of stuff from other people because, well, you decide. Because he’s a community-minded young man doing his best for everyone? Or because he’s an idiot? Whatever, within the scope of the novel there’s never any comeback. Nobody seems to mind Cora’s wholesale redecoration of everyone’s houses—Martha is a little surprised one time when she goes into one, but that’s all—and as for Finn’s little ruse with the cars and trucks, the novel ends before anybody notices. That wouldn’t happen in a novel for young adults.

And what on earth is Cora thinking about when she fails to make contact with her parents for months? And when she plans a life without them in Ottawa (I think)?  She writes short letters to Finn, each in the appropriate language for the different countries celebrated, addressed to the different houses in their village. She tells him to keep them a secret, so he does. Their parents go almost mad with worry, as Finn must know—he still listens in to their phone conversations—until Sophie, now the new postwoman, shows a mystery one to Martha. She recognises the handwriting, they read the postmark, and they know she’s in Alberta. They guess it’s a camp like the one they work in, telephone everyone they know who works in one—quite a few ex-villagers—and draw a blank. It’s a good job Hooper has let the reader know in the first chapter that she’ll be OK, or we might be a bit worried.

There are other adults. Mrs Callaghan you know about, becoming more and more the voice of every part of a culture that is disappearing. (Songs are memories of an earlier life that people could take with them before photos existed, she helpfully tells Finn.) There’s also John, the love interest for Martha, and Sophie, who had been the first girl to have attempted to dislodge Aidan from his vow never to fall in love. She’s been drawn back to the old place following a successful athletic career, and she becomes the whiskey-drinking love interest for Aidan. So, like the children, the parents have parallel stories going on, extremely sketchy by comparison but no more plausible. As I read about these sad little affairs it wasn’t the sadness or desperation I was unmoved by, just the telling of them. I remember thinking, Hooper doesn’t know what she’s talking about here. Sophie’s fine with Aidan ending the affair immediately after the first time they have sex, going off for a run when he tells her there must be no more of it. It’s harder for John, Martha’s guilty secret…

…but he comes in useful for Hooper’s scheme of things. He does the right thing by leaving Martha’s work-camp to find work in another… and reader, we recognise its name. So, when he gets there and decides to go for a lonely, potentially suicidal walk out into the deep woods, the ones where we know Cora works as a dog-handler ostensibly to scare off the bears—I’m not making this up—we know what’s going to happen. He sees Martha, realises it’s a younger version of her, and calls out Cora’s full name. Until then she’s been Don—the name of the man whose job she took by pretending it was her name, the one who’s OK about it when he arrives some weeks later to take up the position, happy to turn around and look for work elsewhere—which fits in with Hooper’s unsubtle message throughout about strong women. She’s been singing, out in the woods, and John asks her if she plays anything. Violin, she says, but she sold it on the journey there. So he buys one for her, which comes in the post. So, later, she can join in the serenade to the sea at the end of the novel.

OK, I’m jumping the gun, but the way Finn’s little fish-serenading band are brought together is so convenient—would Hooper call it serendipitous?—I thought I’d mention it now. If there’s a dry eye in the house it must be mine.

Are we nearly there yet? Clearly, yes. Cora finally calls home, and Martha answers. Cora says something along the lines of sorry sorry sorry—I’m paraphrasing—and everything’s going to be all right. No, really. Aidan is appalled by his own behaviour with Sophie, so immediately admits to Martha on the phone that—all together now—all Connors are cheats. She’s less frank, merely echoing something once sad by Aidan’s mother that everybody’s a cheat… but it’s good enough. She’ll come home a week early, and they’ll get ready to move out. But they’ll do their performance first, the family, Sophie, Mrs Callaghan out in a boat—she’ll never, ever come to the village that everyone else moved to after the previous eviction six years earler—and the new ferry-office man. Will the fish come? The novel ends with almost a page of phrases, separated by line spaces, culminating in ‘the water / the water / was dark and empty and waiting / ready’

Of course they won’t come, but nobody needs to say it. Nobody needs to say anything much in this novel, it seems, so long as there are stories to tell, tunes to be played, and songs to be sung. To me, after all these pages, it seems like nowhere near enough.