The latest trend to grip Canadian publishing – immigrant literature – has been both refreshing and an inevitablity. It has given prominence to the voices of a significant and influential group within Canadian society – though it has occasionally fallen prey to the politically correct idea that all such voices should be listened to with equal attention. From David Bezmozgis’s Natasha to Vincent Lam’s Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures, this trend has also kept the literary focus on the spot where most writers and most immigrants happen to live: Toronto.
That city is the backdrop of Anthony De Sa’s first book, Barnacle Love. The short stories contained here are divided into two parts: the first deals with the arrival of Manuel, an Açores fisherman, in Newfoundland, and his subsequent settling in the Portuguese area of Toronto; the second details the coming-of-age experiences of his son, Antonio, who feels torn between the new and old worlds.
As with many first works of fiction, the strongest and most prominent element here is the author’s descriptive power. De Sa captures details in a unique way that evolves from story to story – dreamily so in the early stories, and more concretely in the later ones. However, the turning points in most of the stories are obscured, making the whole feel tentative and uncertain. Most openings are purposely baffling, shrouded in imprecise pronouns, vague locations, and forced attempts at solemnity.
The most chronic problem in Barnacle Love, however, is the profusion of clichés. They’re all here: childhood sexual abuse (by a priest, no less), drunken fathers, abandoning mothers. De Sa’s impulse is always to go for the most melodramatic option, even when it is not supported by the rest of the story, and he cannot seem to let an emotional moment go unexplained. (From the story “Made of Me”: “Seeing his helpless mother settled Manuel’s past. There was no need to hold on to things that had weighed so heavily on him, that had become obstacles, or so he rationalized.”)
The perfectly avoidable missteps, the bent for cliché, and the uneven narration make Barnacle Love feel half-formed. No doubt there is talent here, but more nurturing and editing would have allowed the book to have resonated for much longer than the duration of a publishing trend.