Thursday, December 2, 2010

REVIEW: Barnacle Love, by Anthony De Sa

Barnacle Love, by Anthony De Sa. Paperback edition published 2010 by Algonquin Books. Paperback.

Barnacle Love, a finalist for Canada's Giller Prize, is the story of the Manuel Antonio Rebelo, a Portuguese immigrant to Canada, and his family. It touches on familiar themes of assimilation, family and estrangement and is told at first from Manuel's perspective and later from that of his son, Antonio, who tries to survive in a chaotic, abusive family stuck between two worlds.

The book is divided into stories, each highlighting a specific time or event in the life of the family, beginning with Manuel's arrival in Canada. The favorite son and the hope of his family, he leaves Portugal on a fishing boat and nearly drowns; he's pulled from the sea by a strange father-daughter duo to whom he becomes quickly attached. From there he battles disappointment after disappointment, trying, with limited success, to integrate himself and his family into Canadian society. He is challenged by those who have come to Canada and those who have stayed behind in Portugal as well as by his own attitudes and personal limitations.

Antonio's chapters, towards the end of the book, will seem familiar to those who have read a lot of immigrant fiction; you've heard this story before. Unlike some reviewers, I thought Manuel's strange, slightly surreal adventures in the New World were more compelling than Antonio's standard child-of-immigrants-trying-to-fit-in point of view. Manuel looms large throughout the book- it struck me as being more about the father than the son- and he becomes decidedly unlikeable in Antonio's chapters, which also limited their appeal for me.

On balance I liked the book but I didn't think it was particularly outstanding. De Sa depicts Portuguese culture vividly and colorfully, but the overall tone is one of hopelessness. The best thing about the book is De Sa's characters; his portrayal of Manuel's domineering, cruel mother in Portugal, and the slick newcomer Mateus Almeida in Canada are particularly memorable, but most memorable of all is the story of the girl Pepsi and her father, the people who rescue him from the ocean only to betray him with heartbreaking callousness. De Sa sets his hero adrift in a cruel and unforgiving world, then sets his son up to hate him for what it does to him and the family. I'd recommend it to hardcore readers of immigrant or Canadian-immigrant stories but most other readers can probably pass.

Rating: BORROW

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FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Algonquin.