Sometimes I’m astounded by a writer’s talent and finesse, and that’s how I feel about Lisa Moore’s writing. She writes like no one else I’ve encountered. In particular, I noticed how she gets inside the minds of her characters; she follows the way their thoughts move: back-and-forth in time, jumping from one subject to another, with fragments, without censorship, fixating on key memories that can’t ever be erased. After finishing February, I found myself flabbergasted the same way I was after reading Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, with the same thought: How did this all come together, how did it work? Now I have to reread this book!
Moore’s protagonist, Helen, is a 56-year-old grandmother whose husband Cal died when the oil rig he was working on capsized off the coast of Newfoundland. Helen and Cal were only thirty and thirty-one. They were in love; they had three children; there was another baby on the way that Cal didn’t even know about. So this novel is mostly about tragedy and how it happens in ordinary life and to ordinary people. How does Helen go on? Why does she go on?
In February, Moore gets inside Helen’s mind, but at many different points of time that are not presented chronologically. Somehow, Moore is able to create an utterly compelling narrative out of all these fragments: thought-fragments that ring so true the reader can’t help but think, This is fiction but it captures reality better than anything else I’ve ever read. We recognize the emotional truth of the way Helen is tormented by the “accident”; her fixation on imagined scenarios, questions, and if-onlys. It’s a loop of thoughts that replays in her mind from the first moment she hears about the rig going down, to the days following, the months following, the birth of the baby girl who would never know her father, and the years that turn into decades.
February is about luck. And risk. And risk management. The first time Helen and Cal have sex, the condom breaks. Is that bad luck? Helen gets pregnant, yes, but they are in love; they get married, twenty and twenty-one years old.
Cal considers himself lucky to get a job on the rig. He and Helen know the risks, but they need the money for their growing family.
What about the oil company, the people at the top who didn’t even phone the families of their employees after the sinking? The families heard “no survivors” on the morning news at the same time as their friends and neighbours. There is an inquiry, of course. Moore’s powerful, scathing words cut through all the obfuscating language and evasions of the company’s “risk management policies.” Here are some of the things Helen learns, forever imprinted on her mind:
Inside the control room there’s also a panel with brass rods that allows the ballast control operators to control ballast manually, and here’s the thing. . . . Nobody knew how to use the brass rods. If they’d known, the rig wouldn’t have sunk.
. . . the water from the broken portal hits the electrical panel and short-circuits it . . . The man in the control room . . . he’s reading the manual, but here’s the thing: the manual didn’t say how to control the ballast if there was an electrical malfunction.
So he can read the manual all he wants.
He can read it backwards if he wants. Or he can read it in Japanese. It’s never going to tell him what to do. (p. 152)
Even more unbearable to Helen are the things she can never know. Did Cal, about to die, know that she loved him? Did he want to tell her the things she so needed to hear?
She would have liked him to tell her certain things, and she knows exactly what they are:
I’m not afraid.
Tell Helen thank you.
Tell the children I love them.
Tell Helen; tell Helen. (pp. 291–292)
Moore is fearless in confronting life’s ultimate, awful mystery—death—and Helen’s pain at being unable to share any part of Cal’s journey.
What Helen cannot fathom or forgive: We are alone in death. Of course we are alone. . . . Cal was alone in that cold. . . . Helen wants to jump into the ocean in the middle of the night when it’s snowing just to see what it feels like. (p. 292)
Helen is tormented by imagining Cal’s being alone during his last moments on the oil rig, but she too faces solitude—a solitude that extends to decades. She must go on living as a single mother who has had the love, help, and companionship of her husband wrenched away. When her children are grown up they encourage her to try online dating; on this subject, Moore manages to be both funny and pitiless as she describes Helen’s being stood up in a bar by a man who seemed exciting online.
Yet a few years after the bar incident, Helen realizes she might not have to give up on love and sex. She finds herself attracted to Barry, the carpenter who is renovating her house. I almost gasped with recognition when I read the line, “. . . she thinks again the thing every adult woman thinks of herself—that she is still her sixteen-year-old self.” (p. 242)
How deeply she craves to be touched. Because what follows not being touched, Helen has discovered, is more of the same—not being touched. . . .
The only cure is to chant: I want, I want. (p. 242)
Still, Helen can’t stop thinking, “They are too old for love. It is laughable. For an instant she sees them fucking: grey pubic hair, puckered skin, creaking joints. It is a grotesque comedy . . . ” But Moore shows this isn’t true. With the story of Helen and Barry, February becomes a novel whose warmth and hope shines against tragedy and corruption.
This review has been mostly about Helen; I’m not doing justice to the complexity of the characters in this book, and the richness of their interwoven stories. The most disturbing and fascinating character is Helen’s oldest child, her son John, who is nine when his father is lost. Precocious, charming, sharply intelligent despite a learning disability, John causes Helen no end of grief yet takes on the role of helping his family from an early age. Moore forces us to confront the irony and moral ambiguity of a person who accepts a job with a company whose function is to “modify” and “trim” “redundant safety procedures” on oil rigs. By taking this job, with its obscenely high salary, John secures his own escape from the risky, physically horrible jobs he has done on oil rigs. He also gains financial security, and he supports his family generously. And when a casual, week-long vacation fling with a woman results in an unexpected pregnancy, John decides, with his mother’s help, to do what she would call “the right thing.”
February was the winner of Canada Reads in 2013. Risky in style and structure, it is yet a captivating, perfect novel, devastating in its emotional truth. I still don’t know how Lisa Moore did it—I can’t do justice to February here—just read it.
Moore, Lisa. 2009. February. Toronto: House of Anansi Press