We'll All Be Burnt in Our Beds Some Night

By Hurley, Melanie | Newfoundland and Labrador Studies, Spring 2018 | Go to article overview

We'll All Be Burnt in Our Beds Some Night


Hurley, Melanie, Newfoundland and Labrador Studies


Joel Thomas Hynes. We'll All Be Burnt in Our Beds Some Night. Toronto: Harper Collins, 2017. ISBN 978-1-44344-783-6

Just before I began reading Joel Thomas Hynes's We'll All Be Burned in Our Beds Some Night, it won the prestigious Governor General's Award for English-language fiction, an event that changed the context of my reading, and along with it, my perceptions of the book, making reviewing it much more challenging than if I had come to the book blind. I felt more pressure not only to think that the book was original and well-crafted, but also to enjoy reading it in the same way I feel obliged to find quality in and to like award-winning films or "classic" texts. At the same time, people who knew I was reading the book began offering me their opinions on Hynes's work and persona, further complicating my reading context. In the end, I find I cannot separate how I interpret the novel from the experience of reading it; thus, the review must incorporate both.

The novel explores the dark side of Newfoundland: Hynes weaves together familiar names, places, and stories to create a gritty, startling tale that, for better or worse, is likely to resonate with readers from Newfoundland or who have lived in the province long term. Its world is shockingly lacking in empathy, and through protagonist Johnny Keough's experiences it probes into how this absence perpetuates itself. Initially, Johnny is not a particularly likeable character, which caused me to have difficulty engaging with the text, and his story is rife with domestic violence and other forms of abuse (sexual, child, and animal), depictions that I found disturbing (an assessment with which I am sure many other readers would agree). Yet, through the adept use of both the limited third-person and the first-person points of view to delve into these unpleasant realities, Hynes manages to craft a moving, emotionally charged read that I eventually found quite compelling. If you are like me, Hynes's writing will make you feel, by turns, annoyed, disgusted, and heartbroken, and it will probably have you cheering for Johnny, despite yourself, by the time the novel finishes.

Hynes makes heavy use of familiar places, names, and news stories to lend his narrative a high degree of verisimilitude, and his focus on local culture makes his work like that of many other Newfoundland writers. The novel opens in St. John's, and it frequently references wellknown places there, such as the Atlantic Place steps (52), the Peter Easton pub (72), and Fred's Records (121), details that made me feel like I was reading about the lived experiences that go on around me each day. Certain featured names are characteristic of Newfoundland: "Keough" is a surname associated with the Southern Shore (the location of many of Johnny's memories), while names ending in "ie" or "y" (e.g., Johnny, Mikey, and Stevie) are prevalent in the province. At times, the novel alludes to real news stories, such as when, awaiting trial for allegedly assaulting his girlfriend Madonna with a teapot, Johnny notices "that evil cunt from CBS who burnt his house down with his five-year-old daughter inside" (58), a moment that evokes Quinn Butt's alleged murder. Hynes's attention to local detail is not at all unusual for Newfoundland writers. From Wayne Johnston's The Colony of Unrequited Dreams (1998) to Ron Pumphrey's autobiographical Human Beans (2007), books by Newfoundland writers tend to be explicitly about life in this province, albeit in different historical periods. Hynes's novel adds to this body of literature, and his contribution focuses on contemporary life and the world of recent memory, making it likely to appeal to a younger generation of readers. The connections to the local at the level of quotidian details and at the level of the Newfoundland literary corpus breathe life into Hynes's characters, and it makes the novel's world hauntingly, and perhaps distressingly, familiar to long-time residents of the province. …

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