Sight, sound and story

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 Alligator
A master of atmosphere spins a good yarn

IN HER FIRST two books, the short-story collections Open and Degrees of Nakedness, Newfoundland writer Lisa Moore painted with words âe" the texture of her characters' lives was her subject.

While this achieved its desired beauty, her emphasis on reporting the sensual interface with the physical world often meant a saturation of aesthetics and characters that felt frozen as in a pose, existing solely to be described. That many of her scenes dealt with multiple points in time strangely added to the stasis, leaving you deeply impressed with sights, smells, sensations, tastes âe" of coming of age, smoking cigarettes, getting sick, making love, having children, settling into domestic conflagration âe" but somewhat unclear, or uninterested, as to what exactly was going on when.

In Alligator, her acclaimed first novel, which recently won the Commonwealth Writers' Prize for the Canadian and Caribbean region, she has found a crossroads where atmosphere can smoothly meet plot. The brilliant description remains (âeoethe napkin opened like a flower blooming in a time-lapse filmâe ), but avoids cudgeling narrative causality into a bewildered daze.

On the streets, in the bars, in the clapboard houses of St. John's, Alligator's motley characters jostle for position. Among them: Colleen, a sheltered seventeen-year-old, trying by way of eco-terrorism (and such activities as a misguided trip to a Louisiana gator farm) to shrug away ennui and line her life with meaning; Colleen's mother, Beverly, struggling to accept the death of her husband while learning to live with her daughter's rebellion; Beverly's sister Madeline, an aging filmmaker and self-proclaimed âeoehard ticket,âe straining to finish a feature before a failing heart lays her low; and Frank, an embattled young man trying to improve his lot by selling hot dogs on Water Street. Frank, who falls in love with Colleen, lives in a ratty bed-sit one floor down from Valentine, a Russian sailor, an ex-con, a talented thug, whose desire to make life difficult for those around him is the spark that ignites the story into a strange and frantic explosion.

All Moore's work is set in Newfoundland, and as such, always contains, to some degree âe" like air holds moisture âe" the province's isolation and economic woes (when liberal Colleen is sentenced to community service, she is disgusted by the broken humanity she is forced to work alongside: âeoeThey slouched, stank of body odour and cigarettes, and they all wore velour pants from Zeller's that hung down to reveal butt crack. They had chips and Pepsi for breakfast.âe )

But Moore almost entirely sidesteps the political, the economic, in favour of dissecting the private âe" the experiences of lovers, mothers, fathers, children. She holds a clear and empathetic mirror up to their twenty-first century lives. In Alligator this is done by way of a good story âe" it doesn't hurt that Moore's fluid brushstrokes ensure it all happens on a pleasing canvas, in vivid, breathing colours.âe"Yohannes Edemariam

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