A brother and sister are orphaned in an isolated cove on Newfoundland’s northern coastline. Their home is a stretch of rocky shore governed by the feral ocean, by a relentless pendulum of abundance and murderous scarcity. Still children with only the barest notion of the outside world, they have nothing but the family’s boat and the little knowledge passed on haphazardly by their mother and father to keep them.
Muddling though the severe round of the seasons, through years of meagre catches and storms and ravaging illness, it is their fierce loyalty to each other that motivates and sustains them. But as seasons pass and they wade deeper into the mystery of their own natures, even that loyalty will be tested.
The Innocents is a haunting novel that is both deeply unsettling and, at the same time, lyrically vivid. The novel follows twelve-year-old Evered and his sister ten-year-old sister Ava. Orphaned after an unspecified illness carried away their mother, father, and their baby sister Martha, Evered and Ava must survive alone in the isolated outport cove that they call home with only scant knowledge of the ways of the world. As they muddle through the seasons, their isolation is punctured only by occasional supply drops from the nearby township of Mockbeggar, or by chance encounters with the crew of passing ships. As the siblings grow into adulthood, surviving through the years on meagre catches of fish and basic provisions, their increasing loyalty to each other will come into conflict with their own natures, and with urges that they neither understand nor have names for.
Inspired by a story that author Michael Crummey found in Newfoundland archives, The Innocents is, at times, a deeply disturbing and difficult book. It is no spoiler to say that the relationship that develops between Evered and Ava is an extremely complex one and that, as they move from childhood to adolescence, it becomes intimate in ways that I found unsurprising but unsettling. Trigger warnings then for incest, as well as for implied sexual assault, violence and some fairly grim depictions of death.
That said, the novel doesn’t depict any of these subjects gratuitously. The clue is really in the title – The Innocents – and Michael Crummey has done an excellent job of showing that this is exactly what Evered and Ava are. Orphaned, alone, and largely abandoned by the populace of the nearby town, Evered and Ava have little knowledge of either themselves or of the outside world. Their actions throughout the book are a combination of blind instinct and the scraps of information passed onto them by their parents or by the outsiders who occasionally intrude into their lives. As such, the novel makes you question to what extent you as the reader can judge their actions, given that neither of them is equipped to move fully beyond the state of childlike innocence that they begin the novel in.
Beginning as a survival tale, The Innocents contains some gloriously lyrical descriptions of the Newfoundland landscape. Reading it is like being immersed into the time and place and I felt the icy cold of every harsh winter and the relief of the spring thaw, with the first signs of life returning to the cove. As the novel progresses, it moves to explore the psychological complexity of the twins, with Crummey turning his poet’s eye to the subjects of intimacy, conflict, loneliness, togetherness, and trust. As an exploration of both the harsh realities of survival and the bond between siblings, The Innocents is both unflinching and raw. The lyricism, and the harsh depictions of the daily life on the edge of existence, reminded me very much of Ian McGuire’s The North Water, another novel that doesn’t shy away from the grim realities of life, or the darker facets of the human experience.
For me, however, The Innocents lacked the pace or plot of McGuire’s novel and, at times, the exploration of Everard, Ava, and their situation became bogged down in meditations on nature, the landscape, and the natural world at the expense of the exploration of the siblings characters, and the impact of their situation. The relentless bleakness of the landscape seemed to seep into the story, becoming elevated only during the brief moments of intrusion by outsiders, such as the visit by the HMS Medusa, when the strangeness of Everard and Ava’s existence becomes crystallised in the face of the outside world. Others may well disagree – the novel has received rave reviews from many readers on Goodreads, as well as from literary critics and authors – but, for me, I couldn’t help wanting just a little more by way of plot, and a wider exploration of these encounters with the world beyond the Everard and Ava’s isolated cove.
That said, if you don’t mind the slower pacing, The Innocents is an accomplished and insightful examination of the human spirit in extremes. Quietly meditative, and with descriptions of the natural world that are cinematic in quality, this is a provocative depiction of innocence, hardship, and the sibling bond that is sure to engage and engross many readers of historical and literary fiction.
If you can, please support a local indie bookshop by ordering from them either in person or online! Some of my favourites include Booka Bookshop, The Big Green Bookshop, Sam Read Booksellers, Book-ish, Scarthin Books, and Berts Books.
My thanks go to the publisher for providing a copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review, as well as to Anne Cater from Random Things Tours for organising and inviting me onto this blog tour. Please do check out the other tour stops for more reviews and content!