Theatre of Fish: Travels through Newfoundland and Labrador

By Towse, Raymond | British Journal of Canadian Studies, May 2006 | Go to article overview

Theatre of Fish: Travels through Newfoundland and Labrador


Towse, Raymond, British Journal of Canadian Studies


J. Gimlette, Theatre of Fish: Travels Through Newfoundland and Labrador, (London: Hutchinson, 2005), vii-xiv + 365pp. Cloth. £16.99 (C$39.95). ISBN 0-09-179519-2. Paper. £7.99 ($15.00). ISBN 0-09-179529-X.

This travel book reads more like a piece of highly literary fiction, a novel rather than a factual travel-based account. It aims to portray a personality of Newfoundland and its inhabitants through the eyes of a writer with close family connections spread over more than 100 years or so in the history of the 'Rock', as Newfoundland is parochially known. The book commences with the author's childhood reminiscence of a great-grandfather, Dr Eliot Curwen, who set sail for Newfoundland and Labrador in 1893 accompanied by the irrepressible Dr Wilfred Grenfell, the 'Grenfell of Labrador'. Curwen spent the summer there as a doctor and experienced cruel poverty alongside beautiful ice. The author's own school, Mostyn House, was still owned by the Grenfell family and the headmaster was Wilfred's great-nephew. John Gimlette revisits places encountered by the doctor and explores his own links with this brutal land.

The author travels around the communities of Newfoundland and Labrador to vividly portray the character of place and inhabitants. The thrust of the book is a focus on present day inhabitants, many descendants of fishermen from Jersey and Dorset, desperate Irish and outlaws. Such 'outporters' are found to still use the accent and idioms of early colonists, sometimes Elizabethan, often incomprehensible. John Gimlette's portrayal of this bizarre social admixture refers, for example, to the inhabitants' 'saltboxes', houses dragged across the ice or floated across the sea, and of a diet still reminiscent of that from seventeenth-century sailors such as salt beef, rum, pease-pudding and molasses, not to mention the imbibing of 'screech', dark demerara rum. Dramatic, dark references are made to the illicit, impromptu dramatics - the Mummers. A glossary of terms commonly used in everyday language is a necessary adjunct found in the book.

The literary merit of an excellent writer, a London lawyer by profession, shines through. His previous travel book, At the Tomb of the Inflatable Pig: Travels through Paraguay, suggests a penchant for selection of 'niche' places to investigate and write about in exuberant and vivid prose style. As a 'historian of the absurd', John Gimlette's writing has been described as superlative. The style and structure involves historic and contemporary references to characters and places which are closely intertwined. Thus the reader can become confused as to which characters are current and which historic, what is fact, what is fiction. …

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