And then forever by Christine De Luca. The Shetland Times Ltd, £7.99.
Christine De Luca’s welcome first novel follows a trusted formula – a family story with a quest at the heart of it. The bait for the reader is laid temptingly. Take an old photo of a long-dead grandfather out of a time-worn frame, and suddenly, behind it, you find another photo, one you’ve never seen before, a signed photo of a young woman. Who on earth is she?
That question sets off Katherine Maitland’s search to discover more about the history of her grandfather, Gilbert Jamieson. He went to Canada for a few years of his young life, and nobody in the family ever knew what happened to him during that time.
The novel tells Gilbert’s story and Katherine’s own story in alternate chapters, clearly designed to compare and contrast. He is a skilled young joiner, trying to make a living in 1901-03 Winnipeg, and leads his life completely within the city. His grand-daughter, now in her fifties, has a career in business and a home in Scotland, but travels the world in the course of the book, first to Australia and finally to modern Winnipeg, where she endeavours to find traces of Gilbert a century on.
Family is an important theme: not only the obvious differences between family life then and now, but the issues and dilemmas raised by family relationships, and family responsibilities. Gilbert feels a duty to his mother and siblings back home, Katherine to her children, and others in her extended family.
Communication is important for Gilbert, writing home to his widowed mother in Shetland. Later, he writes to his sweetheart. Keeping in touch is just as important for Katherine, with a son in England, a daughter and grandchildren in Australia, and a new man in her life. She spends time checking and writing emails. Letters and emails give further structure to the novel, receding into the background as the action takes precedence, then given a special emphasis as the story builds to its climax and some of Gilbert’s 1903 letters come into Katherine’s hands.
The key family in old Winnipeg are the Donaghues, who employ Gilbert for a time. Their family rules are based upon their Catholic faith, and strictly enforced by their father. Religion, one of the themes of the book, has never up to now played much of a part in Gilbert’s life, although he does realise that people can draw comfort from it. Now he encounters religion as a barrier for the first time; it will, in the end, shape his life. The religious divide is starkly portrayed.
Barriers to relationships are much more concrete in Gilbert’s world than in Katherine’s, as she embarks on a romance of middle age. Despite the warmth this courtship can sometimes bring to the book, it is overshadowed by the strength of the story taking place in old Winnipeg. The strongest part of the novel occurs when Katherine too is in Winnipeg, and the two paths run closely in parallel, giving immediacy and excitement to her quest.
Young Gilbert is a sympathetic character; he makes good friends and seems to have a chance of doing well. Old Winnipeg is well drawn, and unobtrusively so, without resorting to long descriptions or historical narrative. Gilbert is helping to build the city, and we absorb it as he sees it: its streets and buildings, its atmosphere, its dense winter cold, its ice-covered river.
Through Gilbert, we also learn what it is like to be an immigrant. As he becomes more settled, we look around with his eyes, and take in the startling fact that the whole city is full of people like him, that few people have been here for very long. More arrive every day, streaming off trains with “that lost look on their faces”. We can feel the energy of that expanding city, bursting at the seams.
Gilbert’s Shetland background comes through from time to time, at first in letters, then in his fiddle playing and in conversation with others. Gilbert seems real, and his story will surely touch chords. His inspiration was real: a member of the author’s own family, the subject of a poem in her book Drops in Time’s Ocean.
And then forever is attractively presented by The Shetland Times Ltd. It is an enjoyable read, thoughtfully written by a skilled poet who has here set aside her usual mode of writing to concentrate on creating two sets of characters a century apart, and letting them speak, think and act in accordance with their time.