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Barnacle Love

Anthony De Sa

"
He saw his daughter take hold of a dead chicken that lay on the kitchen counter. She clasped the headless animal by its feet. Terezinha bit her lips as she swung the chicken and tried to spell her name on the kitchen floor with droplets of blood."
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Reviewed by Annie Clarkson

Barnacle Love is a collection of inter-linked stories exploring family relationships, the immigrant experience and the small but devastating events that can affect our lives. 

It is split into two parts. Terra Nova is a collection of five stories focusing on Manuel Antonio Rebelo, a boy who leaves home to become a fisherman and follow his dream to settle in Canada. They follow his journey from the small island of São Miguel in the Azores to Canada, and back again for his mother’s funeral. They explore the hopes and fears of one man, his family and the Portuguese immigrant community. 

Of God and Cod is a beautiful story of Manuel leaving home as a boy, and living on a ship with other dorymen, traditional fishermen. There is such a vivid sense of place, and Anthony De Sa captures the difficult lives of these men in such aching detail: letters home to their families, the constant work, noise and stink, with only brief respite and comfort when the ship docks on the mainland. There is a youthful magical quality to Manuel’s imagination. He writes letters to an elusive fish he calls "Big Lips", and often dwells on memories and imaginations of his dead father and family at home. 

Reason to Blame is the story of Manuel being rescued from drowning by a Nova Scotian fisherman, and nurtured back to health by the man’s daughter Pepsi. There are some touching insights into the difficulties people face: Manuel helping Andrew skin animals, while he listens to him constantly call his daughter an ugly girl, a stupid girl; Manuel’s letters to his Mai, so she knows he is not dead; and the growing tenderness between him and Pepsi. Each story contains unexpected pain and sorrow. We gain insight into how the Portuguese community experience life in Canada: language barriers, trying to find work and respect, and always looking back to "home" by keeping Portuguese traditions and ceremonies alive. The reality is summed up in this dialogue: "Remember this, Manuel, they almost think I am one of them. But they never do… not completely." 

Life in these stories is gritty and hard. It is woven with myths, superstitions and feelings around God, family and survival. There are so many moments in these stories I loved, written with such sensitivity and poetic detail. When Manuel’s mother’s body is laid out ready for burial her daughter: "…smeared the woman’s mouth with bright red lipstick, went beyond her lips and up toward her cheeks like a child who chose not to colour inside the lines." The Rebelo family experience pain, resentment, memory and love with such truth and poignancy that most readers will recognize their own family experience within theirs. 

The second part of Barnacle Love is Caged Birds Sing. Again these are interlinked stories about the Rebelo family, but narrated in the first person by Antonio, Manuel’s son. The voice in these stories is so engaging and insightful it felt to me as though there were elements of the autobiographical in Antonio’s narrative. We hear the lovely lilting voice of Manuel struggling to speak English: "You is good boy. I no hurt you. I no want you to cut your feet, that’s all." And we gain insight into the difficulties of being a child with immigrant parents: "We didn’t want to interpret, at the bank or when someone rang the doorbell selling Electrolux vacuum cleaners. We were tired of responding to the teasing of schoolmates –'No! We don’t eat fish every day!' with clenched teeth." 

Anthony De Sa captures the complexities of childhood so beautifully. The stories in this second part exist in the grey land between childhood innocence and childhood experience. A Portuguese boy is found murdered; Antonio’s friend gives sexual favours for money through a fence; his father Manuel has lost hope in his dream and sinks into alcoholism. There are secrets that must be kept, within the family or from the family. 

I loved all of these stories, most of all perhaps, Pounding the Shadows. It is the penultimate story in the book, when we have grown to understand the Rebelo family in some depth. Antonio is a teenager, and is caught up in the sad decline of his father, Manuel, into alcoholism and despair. He collects metal for his mother to recycle into a whirligig, a symbol of everything she had hoped for her family. He wanders through the empty aviary that was once his father’s joy. He listens to his drunk father rant and swear, and is caught up in the first real family confrontation, the culmination of years of pain, broken dreams and lost pride. 

'J'ust go to bed and shut up, for God’s sake, just shut the fuck up.' 

My stomach hit my throat.

'And it’s not fuckersh. There’s no shhh in that fucken word. You’ve been in Canada all those years and –'

'I Canadian!' 

I imagined him puffing out his chest and pounding it hard. 

'You’re a fucken pork chop! That’s what they call us dad… pork chops!' 

I found it desperately sad to read, as though I was witness to this slow breakdown in Manuel and his family, as though I had experienced with them all the hope, and struggle and pain. 

Barnacle Love is not a collection of stories in the traditional sense. Even though they do stand alone, these stories are the chronological story of one family, and the book needs to be read from beginning to end. Each story builds on the last, and leaves us wanting more, especially when we reach the end.

Read an excerpt from one of the stories from this collection on CTV.ca


Annie Clarkson is a poet and short story writer living in Manchester, UK. Her first chapbook of short prose Winter Hands was published by Shadow Train Books in 2007.

 

PublisherDoubleday Canada

Publication Date:
March 2008


Paperback/Hardback?
Paperback


First collection?
Yes

Awards: Shortlisted for the 2008 Scotiabank Giller Prize for Fiction

Author bio: Anthony De Sa grew up in Toronto’s Portuguese community. His short fiction has been published in several North American literary magazines. He attended The Humber School for Writers and now heads the English department and directs the creative writing program at a high school for the arts. Barnacle Love is his first book. He lives in Toronto with his wife and three sons.

Read an interview with Anthony De Sa


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What other reviewers thought:

The Written World 

National Post

Toronto Star 

Ottawa Citizen 

Quill and Quire

So Many Precious Books, So Little Time

The Book Mine Set