The Town That Forgot How to Breathe

In the tradition of Michael Crummey’s Galore and Carsten Jensen’s We, the Drowned is the 2005 novel The Town That Forgot How to Breathe by Kenneth J. Harvey. Although it is lesser known than the novels by Crummey and Jensen, it is worthy of a read. Atmospheric and chilling, you’ll wonder why The Town That Forgot How to Breathe ever escaped your notice.

Harvey lives in Newfoundland and is the author of Brud and Directions for an Opened Body. He has received the Raddall Atlantic Fiction Prize and has been shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the Books in Canada First Novel Award.

Joseph Blackwood and his daughter Robin vacation in the seaside town of Bareneed, Newfoundland. He has recently divorced and become estranged from his daughter; he hopes to reconnect with her. Blackwood’s father was originally from Bareneed, and he still has relatives there. The seaside idyll, however, turns out to be anything but.

Bareneed residents cannot seem to remember to breathe. It is as if they have simply forgotten how to take breaths. At the same time, bodies of those who have perished at sea are suddenly washing up on shore. Next door to the house the Blackwoods are renting is the ghost of a little girl who died at sea. She wants to make friends with Robin and sings a little ditty over and over again: “My father went to sea-sea-sea to see what he could see-see-see and all that he could see-see-see was the bottom of the deep blue sea-sea-sea.” You can see how Harvey beautifully sets the tone. There is such a chilling quality to this novel that I could literally feel the cold water in my bones.

Interestingly, like its people, Bareneed is a dying town. It, too, suffers from illness. Many are out of work and fail to make ends meet. The government had shut down the cod fishing industry, which was the primary livelihood of Bareneed. This, of course, hurt fishermen, but it also hurt those who worked in a fish plant in Bareneed. Those suffering from breathing problems are those who once fished or worked in the abandoned plant. Their world has drastically changed, and they are having difficulties adapting to life. As Harvey writes, these people are “fishers of men no more.” The people of Bareneed have had their lifestyle threatened; they have lost their place and their sense of self. They are not sure if they will ever get it back either. I think many Americans in this economic crisis can relate to these people. Harvey also shows us a people who believe modern technology makes us sick and cuts us off from our deceased ancestors. It all makes for a curious read.

The lure of the sea is paramount in Harvey’s work. The sea churns, envelopes bodies for years, and then spits them back out. This book has been on my to-be-read shelf since 2005 when I first bought it. I do not know for what I was waiting. I think it works well with Crummey and Jensen. If you enjoy sea lore, pick up The Town That Forgot How to Breathe.

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