This is a fairly well-written but slow-paced story that takes place in the tiny town of Witless Bay, Newfoundland, surrounding a handful of colorful characters who struggle to make sense of their lives with relatively little connection to the outside world. Touches of magical realism combine with a certain bleakness of spirit to make for a story which has fascinating aspects to it, but which ultimately left me somewhat cold.
Fabian is the product of a faltering marriage, who early on discovers that his penchant for drawing birds is his sole passion in life. Seduced at age 15 by Margaret, a feisty 19-year-old alcoholic who likes to shoot ducks, Fabian falls into an ongoing affair with her that is consummated on Tuesday and Thursday evenings for years, but which never evolves. Fabian’s pretty mother is stifled by small-town existence and her stolid husband and is looking for a way out; she also has an intense dislike for Margaret and that, combined with Fabian’s father’s desperation to force his son out of Witless Bay and into the real world, sets the scene for the ensuing disaster.
While Fabian stays at home to draw birds, Dad goes out to shoot birds (get it?) to raise the money for Fabian’s marriage to a distant cousin, and Mom writes countless letters to the relatives to plan the wedding, which will take place in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Fabian is disinterested in the marriage but allows himself to be swept into agreeing to it, leaving Margaret furious. While Dad is out of town, Mom enters into an open affair with the lighthouse keeper, leaving Fabian horribly embarrassed and upset (and displaced?). When his Dad returns home, Fabian takes a gun that Margaret has inexplicably pressed on him and shoots the lighthouse keeper. Flight, wedding, arrest and trial ensue.
The plot picks up its pace after the murder, and various members of the town—from Margaret’s enigmatic father Enoch to the censorious town reverend to the quirky district sheriff—all step in to provide much-needed substance and drive to this otherwise strange and passionless tale. Fabian and Margaret show the least change in the novel from beginning to end, while Fabian’s father proves to be one of the more interesting characters, even if it doesn’t reveal until the end of the story.