Sarah O'Connor

Writer – Playwright – Cannot Save You From The Robot Apocalypse

“Guilt casts a spell like the one cast by despair. The spells of love and hope don’t linger like the others,” (Johnston).

When fourteen-year-old Ned Vatcher comes home from school after the first snowstorm of the season he finds his house locked, the family car missing, and his parents gone. Word spreads across Newfoundland about the Vanished Vatchers: Edgar, the disliked right-hand man to the colony’s prime minister who fell from grace and his wife, London-born Megan who yearned to go back home. The Vatchers weren’t liked on the island, and Ned agonizes over what happened to his parents. Murder? Suicide? He can’t believe his parents would leave their only child behind. But the Vatchers are no strangers to tragedy, years before his uncle vanished at sea and his death still haunts his grandparents and Uncle Cyril. He finds care and kindness from a Jesuit priest, Father Duggan, who starts a trust so that Ned won’t be destitute, and a friend of his father’s reporter Sheilagh Fielding who finds a surrogate in Ned from her estrangement from her twins. Spanning fifty years, this epic novel offers a character study into grief, longing, love against the backdrop of Newfoundland.

I read First Snow, Last Light for a book club at work unaware that it was the last of a trilogy. That being said, this book definitely stands well on its own, though I’m curious about what the previous two books are like. Johnston has an excellent voice and does an excellent job creating the cold and dreary Newfoundland atmosphere. I think he expertly showed how Newfoundlanders felt when it became a province of Canada, a part of Canadian history I know very little about but will have to look into more.

The strongest character is easily Sheilagh Fielding, who the series apparently follows, though Ned is the protagonist in this book and doesn’t appear (to my knowledge) in any of the previous books. I liked her wit and learning about her history, I also enjoyed Father Duggan who was one of the few unproblematic in the book. Ned was…something. Clearly a man who has undergone trauma, and I think Johnston does a good job of showing how the trauma of his parent’s disappearance completely uproots his life and causes his decades long obsession to find out what happened to them. He becomes somewhat like Charles Kane in this sense, building an empire on the province from television stations to grocery stores, becoming successful but ultimately unhappy because of the answers he doesn’t have. The book is interesting in its themes of obsession, truth, secrets, and generational trauma even if it makes characters like Ned a bit overblown and unrealistic at times.

My biggest problem with the book was the length, a fifty-year timespan is long even in a book over 500 pages. It takes a good bit to get to the Vatchers disappearance as we focus on and even then we zip through Ned in high school, speed past his post-secondary education in the States and how he didn’t enlist in the Second World War which is a HUGE decision I think should have been looked at war (honestly the war was pretty much skipped through, but I also understand that this isn’t a war novel) and then him moving to Newfoundland and starting his empire on the island. It’s a great look at generational trauma and how far obsession will take a person, but about forty years to find out what happened to his parents is a damn long time. I understand the choice, but the book definitely dragged at points.

Still, First Snow, Last Light is a wonderful book and Johnston is an amazing writer. I look forward to reading some of his other books and maybe even reading the previous two books in this series.

Bonus Quote:

“It’s just your childhood that you miss, your childhood when everyone was nice to you, when you had no enemies, no one who was out to bring you down.”

33877397Publication: September 5 2017
Publisher: Knopf Canada
Pages: 512 pages (Hardcover)
Source: Library
Genre: Fiction, Historical Fiction, Contemporary, Mystery, CanLit
My Rating: ⛤⛤⛤.5

Ned Vatcher, only 14, ambles home from school in the chill hush that precedes the first storm of the winter of 1936 to find the house locked, the family car missing, and his parents gone without a trace. From that point on, his life is driven by the need to find out what happened to the Vanished Vatchers. His father, Edgar, born to a poor family of fishermen, had risen to become the right-hand man to the colony’s prime minister, then suffered an unexpected fall from grace. His mother, Megan, London-born and already unhappy in St John’s, spiralled deeper into despair. Was it murder? Was it suicide? Had they run away? Most of all, why had they left their only child behind?
Ned soon finds himself enmeshed in another family, that of his missing father and the poverty from which the man somehow escaped. His grandparents, Nan and Reg, his Uncle Cyril and others, are themselves haunted by the inexplicable disappearance, years before, of a third Vatcher, a young man who was lost at sea on a calm and sunny day. Two other people loom large as Ned builds an empire to insulate him from everything that brought his parents down: a Jesuit priest named Father Duggan, and Sheilagh Fielding, a boozy giantess who, while wandering the city streets at night, composes satiric columns that scandalize the rich and powerful. In Ned, Fielding sees a surrogate for her two lost children, the secret that dogs her throughout her life, while Ned believes the enigmatic Fielding to be his soulmate.

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