Newfoundland novelist Lisa Moore explores loss in ‘February’

On Sept. 20, York’s Canadian Writers in Person course and lecture series presented author Lisa Moore reading from her critically-acclaimed novel February (Anansi, 2009). Special correspondent Chris Cornish (BA Hons. ’04, MA ’09) sent the following report to YFile.

A lot of the men who died on the Ocean Ranger had gone out of their way to say goodbye, and it was strange. That’s the way it got remembered. That’s what everyone remarked on years later. He called up just before he left.

From February
by Lisa Moore

Lisa Moore Initially, Canadian author Lisa Moore (right) felt she didn’t have the right to tell the story in her latest novel. February is centred on the historic sinking of the Ocean Ranger off the coast of St. John’s, Nfld. on Feb. 15, 1982. None of the gigantic oil rig’s 84 crew members survived and because it was a tragedy that is still felt today, Moore felt some trepidation approaching this topic. However, as she did more research, she discovered that very little had been written about the disaster and she was concerned that it would begin to pass out of living memory. “The story had reached a point where it needed to be told or lost.” She recently shared that story at the opening of the Canadian Writers in Person reading series at York.

Though she did extensive research on the disaster, she grew more interested in the people left behind, those who had “lost someone in that void of ocean, with its ice and sleet, to be back on shore imagining that hermetically sealed space.” Her main character Helen loses her husband on the Ocean Ranger and she and her family feel the repercussions 25 years later. Though Helen is completely fictionalized to respect the families affected by the event, Moore drew on her own experiences of grief to understand the character: her own father died suddenly around the same time as the Ocean Ranger sank.

“When my own father died, I felt that he was irrevocably gone. I was terrified at 16 that I would forget him,” she said. Rather, she discovered that the further from the loss, the stronger, more vivid, and more meaningful are the memories of that person. In such a way, they live on like ghosts through memory. This may be why Moore chose to structure the novel in such a way that fragmented memories of the past meander through the present narrative very much like ghosts. “We really only experience meaning when we reflect,” said Moore.  While memory seems involuntary, there is some february book coverkind of order and meaning is generated through that order.”

When asked about the unconventional style of the novel, Moore suggested that without quotation marks, there is more room for the reader to interpret the lines. Helen is an active woman who has various jobs, raises kids, runs a business, and goes on dates, yet the novel “allows us to see inside her head, the nuances and textures of life lived internally, always moving through the stream of life.”

Though the novel deals with grief, it is not without its lighter moments. Helen’s sister is a vibrant, tough-talking but caring character who drops lines like “Do me a favour and shut up” and “I am not wowed”. The character is based on Moore’s Aunt Louise and though she considered changing the name, her aunt insisted that “if I’m in this novel, I want you to use my real name.” Moore kept the name and used many of her aunt’s real-life experiences for the character. However, Moore wrote a fictional scene in which Louise has an affair with a Greek man, and later told her mother she was worried Louise would object to this misrepresentation. Her mother laughed it off and said, “Oh, she’ll love that!”

The Canadian Writers in Person series of public readings at York, which are free and open to the public, is also part of an introductory course on Canadian literature. It is sponsored in part by the Canada Council for the Arts. On Oct. 4, Giller-winning author David Bergen presented a reading from his latest novel, The Matter with Morris. The next Canadian Writers in Person public reading will take place on Oct. 25 and features author Lisa York reading from her novel Fauna.