Nigel Jarrett reviews Hummingbird by Tristan Hughes, admiring the author’s skill in crafting such a beautifully balanced and emotionally raw novel.
In Tristan Hughes’s new novel an older and possibly wiser Zachary Taylor is recounting events that took place when he was fifteen and living with his father at Sitting Down Lake. The place would be a version of Walden if its pre-lapsarian potential had not been subverted by tragedy and disaster, including the suicide of Zachary’s mother, which happened before father and son decamped to the sticks for the first time without her. In fact, the other lakeside dwellers bring so much emotional freight with them on the railway that skirts the water that Hughes’s achievement might be seen as the effortless accommodation of it, and the avoidance of its risible possibilities, in a narrative of just 181 pages. Halfway in, and apart from that suicide by wrist-slashing, we’ve already learned of a girl who’s lost her parents in a suspected plane crash; a woman whose marriage is breaking up; a somnambulant leech-gatherer whose sister was killed by a train; and the deaths in a yachting accident of Zachary’s paternal grandparents; oh, and his grandmother had died giving birth to his mother. Then there’s Mrs Molson, whose house was burned down when a forest fire did a spot of freelancing at its perimeter. Even Mrs Schneider, an Austrian, had fled unspecified happenings at home aged seventeen in response to an advert for wives for ‘Northern’ men. Luck was ne’er a lady in these Canadian fastnesses, which hold their own terrors and perils for an imaginative and plucky teenager.
What everyone, therefore, has brought to Sitting Down Lake is a past aching for resolution. Central to these desiderata is the need of a feisty, guilt-ridden and troubled girl called Eva to discover what happened to the seaplane which airlifted her parents to a holiday destination but neither made it nor left any evidence of a crash. She comes to stay lakeside with her Uncle Lamar in an act of last resort by the welfare authorities. Much of Hughes’s storytelling skills are deployed in building up the relationship between them while not forgetting everyone else, and the reasons why Lamar appears to be reconstructing a portion of his pre-traumatic past, much to Eva’s annoyance. It’s a portion that Eva doesn’t recognise as settled at all. The idea that nothing is as it seems, or that things are what one wants them to be or can be altered and remain open-ended, is also central to the novel. Zachary’s mother was a creative who liked whittling shedded deer antlers into other animal shapes – what his rather dour dad called metamorphoses – and teaching her son to recognise in them, and in anything else for that matter, precisely what he wanted to see, though his ability to do so remains indefinite. There’s a revealing episode in which he and his parents are examining, al fresco, old cliff-side pictographs made by Native Americans, Zachary’s imagination conflicting with the official tourist descriptions urged upon him by his father. His mother’s suicide in a bathtub remains as unexplained as the disappearance of Eva’s parents. Answers are unforthcoming at Lake Mishap, even about the location of Mrs Molson, who departed her burnt-out house for Alberta and was never heard from again. No doubt she had been, and was presumably still, metamorphosing. Whether or not Mrs Schneider’s daughter and Zachary’s father are on route to becoming an item is also a question of movement, apparent or real.
Insofar as a teenager’s rite of passage involves adults, Zachary’s contact with his grown-up neighbours is as much a lesson as his increasing familiarity with the inanimate lake and its wildlife. He can identify the rasping of pine bugs eating a blasted tree from the inside, and has already witnessed the springtime revelation of a duck frozen to death in arse-up mid-feed, which in the louring atmosphere that pervades the story is regarded as ill-omen. He notices, but is not embarrassed by, his father’s ungainliness, he accepts Oskar the Scandinavian leech-gatherer’s eccentricities as ‘Finnish things’, and he’s able to introduce Eva to The Burn, Homesteaders, the Three-Day Blow, Wannigans, and – thanks to the neighbour’s biologist daughter whose marriage is foundering and who’s an expert on submerged habitats – the Pukak. All this is testimony to Ontario-born Hughes’s research and/or prior knowledge, which is transformed in many places by choice description: Oskar’s leeches ‘undulated like sunken black flags on miniature pirate ships’; ‘Beneath invisible trees the fireflies flickered in the undergrowth like explosions on a midnight battlefield seen from some great height’; and this, about the endgame of melting ice: ‘…it went quiet and all you could hear – but only if you listened carefully – was a shimmery, tinkling sound, as though a million tiny fairies were playing triangles.’ Eva’s gifts to Zachary are a foul mouth, determination, a wicked temperament, daredevilry, and the offer of ‘green death’ cigarettes. And while learning, making sense of things, Zachary sees that the lake offers a way out of predicaments personal and inter-personal – overcoming his fear of the lake’s ‘continental shelf’, for example, and those portions of maps which at Sitting Down Lake are called Un-named Water Bodies and marked by the Ordinance Survey over here as ‘Extent of Available Information’. It’s the unknown, and where the two young protagonists must venture to try to resolve the novel’s paramount matters, almost with tragic results; unlike Zachary’s father, whose adventurousness is confined to notating the wondrous undertakings of explorers in extremity. It’s to Hughes’s credit that he knows when to hold back in a story already stuffed with more than enough calamities at the point where another would have been one too many.
Hummingbird is a triumph of compression, almost occupying a place somewhere between a novella and a more fully-blown novel. The narrative control and sense of scale it takes to make everything neither too long nor too short inform its structure. The final paragraph, in which Zachary does something his mother probably did in order to see the familiar afresh is a master-stroke, its evocation of eternity, the ever-deferred destination of the ever-changing, just perfect. Hummingbird is both the name of the ill-fated seaplane and part of the lakeside fauna, as soon vanished as recognised.
A few superfluities clang, such as a deer’s tongue lolling ‘out of its mouth’, and the sun declining ‘in the west’. A character who erects ‘no trespassing signs’ around his property is ambiguously doing one of two things; we know which one, but the solecism irritates. Also, it’s assumed that the moleskin notebook Zachary’s father uses is not a trademarked Moleskine notebook. One feels obliged to raise these issues if only to satisfy the critical desire to mitigate flawlessness, for this novel has scarcely any faults; even the overcast atmosphere eventually lifts, as it almost always does, conventional happy endings notwithstanding.