When I started this novella, I did not know what to expect. I had read a brief synopsis, which tempted me enough, and visited Binnie Brennan’s website, but that was about it. I like this feeling: having no idea what you are about to read. Harbour View is published by Quattro Books and, like the other book I read from this publishing house, its format is inviting. First of all, I love the design on the cover, which represents the handle of a fiddle. I also like the size of the book and the page presentation, which both make reading an easy and comfortable activity.
This novella is set in Halifax, in a nursing home to be precise. It is consequently concerned with characters who are not the most glamorous one might find: old people aging towards death and the staff looking after them. However, Binnie Brennan’s prose is delicate and makes such a topic bearable despite not sparing the reader with some realistic details.
Each of the six chapters adopts the point of view of one of the characters, whether a resident or the two nurses, while we might also catch a glimpse of the other characters. This structure could also be that of a short story cycle as each chapter appears as an independent story offering to the reader the thoughts, memories and secrets of each chosen character.
With each chapter, we get to discover a little bit about a character. The present and life at the nursing home intermingle with the past of each character and sometimes even gets confused with it, as with Buddy, the first character we meet. Buddy is the eldest resident at Harbour View; at 108, he tends to mix present and past: the music of the past played by the fiddle that has been passed in his family from one generation to the next and the memories of his daughter Alice, who died too young, are part of his quotidian. The crude details related to the realities of growing old are alleviated by the beauty of the short artistic descriptions of the music. The narrative keeps alternating between past and present and this first chapter sets the tone and pace for the following ones, which focus on other residents: Dahlia and the memories of her relationship with Robbie, Violet who acted as a model for the painting she has just donated to her niece and Myrna who has to face the sale of the house in which she grew up and where her mother managed to create a wonderful garden. Each of these residents views the nurses, Muriel and Estella, in their own way, finding them a bit too cheerful and patronising, appreciating their dedication and so on. However, those nurses also have their own secrets and private life and the chapters dedicated to them allow us to see another dimension to them.
The narrative of Harbour View is fragmented, not only because of its overall structure, but also within each chapter and the writing style of each chapter reflects, to some extent, the situation of the character. We are offered glimpses of the past rather than a continuous narrative and, although we are let for an instant into the characters’ past to discover their secrets, nothing is fully explained. As a result, I found Harbour View to be open to the senses and the imagination. It is a much pleasant read. Despite one of its subject matters being old age, I found this novella to be refreshing. I was also appealed by the Celtic background which is part of the Nova Scotian heritage and is very much present in this novella.
Here is an extract of Harbour View, read by Binnie Brennan:
Thanks for sending me your book, Binnie. It was a much agreeable read over my Christmas break.