What I love most about The Shipping News is the way the story unwinds itself as slowly and carefully as a man's fingers tease apart a snarled string, until the hard knots unkink themselves and uncoil into an untangled length. Secrets are revealed, stories are told, realizations dawn on the characters so that they might see their lives in a new way, the possibilities that are before them. It begins with Quoyle, a mess of a man, a sloppy tangled coil (pardon the pun) of a man, a clumsy bear who never got anything right, not work, not life, not love. Stumbled into a job as a newspaperman, was a miserable failure as always. Fell into love with Petal, who gave him two daughters and then left him with a broken heart, another miserable failure. Petal, who ran away and died in a fiery car crash with her lover, leaving Quoyle shattered and numb.
And then his aunt Agnis arrives, sweeping him away from his grief, taking him back to their family home near the town with the strange name of Killick-Claw, a fresh start, she tells him, a chance to begin all over again. There is nothing left for him in Mockingburg. So Quoyle finds himself, with his aunt and daughters Sunshine and Bunny, and the aunt's dog, Warren, driving across New York and through Vermont and up up up into Maine and past that frontier, across that stretch of Canada until at last they arrive at the ferry which will take Quoyle and his daughters across the wind-tossed waves towards Newfoundland, into a new life, and the aunt into her past. To where Quoyle, afraid of water his entire life, unable to swim, must learn how to navigate the rocky waters of the bay in a "wallowing cock-eyed bastard" of a boat.
It is in this remote, bleak village that Quoyle finds a new life, new friends in Dennis and Beety and fellow newspaperman Nutbeem and his boss Jack Buggit. And there is Wavey Prowse, the tall woman with the long graceful stride, the widow with the young child who clings to the memory of her unfaithful husband the way Quoyle clung to the demon-eyed ghost of Petal, who mocked his clumsy hands and stuttering protestations of love. But as these two stumble towards each other into the strange and new sensation of happiness they find that, after all, it may be that love sometimes occurs without pain or misery.
The language of Proulx has something startling to its quickness. I am someone who strings words into wandering, meandering sentences that seem to last forever, and I love other writers who do the same. Proulx flicks words at the reader as quickly as an expert thrower skips stones across a pond. It is the saddest and most exhilarating of experiences.