IN 1917, in the middle of World War I, the Mont Blanc, a ship stocked with so much munitions its crew was forbidden to carry matches on deck, collided with another ship in the narrows of Halifax harbor in Nova Scotia. The resulting explosion, so powerful the shaft of the Mont Blanc's anchor flew two miles, devastated the north end of Halifax.
Every Haligenian and most Canadians are familiar with this disaster. Robert MacNeil, co-anchor of public television's MacNeil-Lehrer NewsHour, lived for a time in Nova Scotia and uses the explosion to set the stage for his first novel. The book starts off with a bang, as it were, and with good writing and a strong narrative pull, MacNeil manages to keep up the momentum through to the end.
In the chaos following the explosion, the diary of a young woman, Julia Robertson, comes into the possession of Peter Wentworth, a clergyman out providing succor to the many suffering after the disaster. MacNeil vividly imagines and describes the aftermath: "Behind another flattened house an old woman wrapped in a shawl emerged from the rubble clutching a silver teapot to her bosom."
For the past two years, Julia's husband has been off in the trenches of Europe fighting the "war to end all wars." The diary is full of Julia's longings - some rather explicit - for her husband. The reader glimpses how wrenching the absence of a nation's young men was on the women left behind during the war and how often that longing turned to grief.
Since Peter's wife is as wan as Julia is colorful and full of life, it's understandable how he becomes so quickly obsessed with the diary and its writer. He gives the journal to a longtime friend, Stewart MacPherson, a psychologist and budding Freudian, in the days when Freud was considered outre at best. MacPherson becomes enthralled with Julia, too, and a love triangle is formed.
While the resolution of the love triangle - "who's going to get the girl?" - is captivating reading, MacNeil's character development draws the reader into these peoples' lives and the different layers of Halifax society. All three of the book's characters are involved with the rebuilding of Halifax and the rehabilitation of its citizens, many of whom lost their eyesight.
MacNeil skillfully describes the horror of trench warfare. After the explosion, MacPherson - who treats shell-shock victims who have come back from the front - sees survivors who suffer symptoms not unlike those of the broken men he treats.
"A man believed all his family, wife and children, had been killed, although they came every day and stood around his bed. He would not be consoled," he says.
Peter is the most complicated and carefully wrought character. At the end of the novel, when all the loose ends are tied together and the love triangle is broken, MacNeil resolves Peter's dilemma a little too quickly and neatly. He has the hardest internal struggle of all three characters, complicated as it is by his fervent faith.
MacNeil should be lauded for his courage in attempting to recreate the diary of a very young woman who lived almost 80 years ago. For the most part, the entries ring true, although I wondered at times if a young girl during that era from proper upper-class Halifax would express her sexual feelings so frankly and frequently. But diaries are supposed to be private documents and maybe I was just embarrassed for her, having her innermost feelings and thoughts hung out for all to see. That I could feel that f or a fictional character is testament to MacNeil's skill.
Clearly, MacNeil wanted to illustrate how the world was changing - remember, the roaring '20s weren't far off, and it wouldn't be long before Freud's theories about sex and the psyche became gospel. He weaves aspects of this changing world into his narrative in the best tradition of the historical novel, so that after you've finished this sophisticated first novel, you've learned something while you had a good time with a good story.