February – Lisa Moore

In 1982, the oil rig Ocean Ranger sank off the coast of Newfoundland.  All 84 men aboard died. February is a fictional narrative set twenty-five years after this real-life disaster.

In February, Moore explores the protracted grief of Helen O’Mara; “one of those left behind” by the catastrophe. The problem I have with this is that Helen wasn’t “left behind” at all – because she isn’t real: unlike, I imagine, many, many tens of women whose husbands did drown in 1982, any one of whose story would doubtless have made more moving, interesting and poignant reading that this problematically fictionalised account.

The problem with February, then, is entirely conceptual.  With such a heart-breaking, community-shattering disaster as its basis, why does Lisa Moore feel the need to fictionalise the grief with made-up characters and events?  It’s almost as if Moore wanted to write about the Ocean Ranger, but didn’t have the balls to write a straight-up novelisation of the actual disaster, and so made up her own story and set it 25 years later.  Why the need for this fake chronicle set so long after the fact?  Moore’s narrative is just dull, dull, dull compared to its real-world inspiration.  The sinking of the Ocean Ranger is the story I want to read about: that’s where my interest would lie: not in this bizarre, pseudo-realistic aftermath set in the present day.  Even a book of interviews with the surviving widows would have made a more fitting tribute.

It’s an age-old argument: at what point does ‘inspiration’ verge on exploitation?  Moore is happy enough to use the “convenient” truth of the actual disaster upon which to ground her novel, but while the sinking of the ship is taken de facto, the real aftermath and individual pain of the event is ignored in favour of Moore’s fictional heroine and her fictional grief.

Is this a form of authorial cowardice: is it easier to fictionalise the present than to engage with it?  Or maybe the real-life stories of the Ocean Ranger widows just weren’t interesting enough, neat enough or…dare I say it…tragic enough to make an entire book?  If pain actual is too morbid, is pain fictional less uncomfortable?  This is supposedly a novel about real grief and loss: but it’s not – it’s a novel of literary, eloquent and articulate grief: the artifice of which wrenches any impression of realism away from the reader and reinforces the book’s identity as fictional dalliance as the characters constantly self-analyse.

The truth is a rabid dog constantly attacking February: but instead of wrestling it to the ground and tackling it head-on, Lisa Moore tries to shoo it away, hoping that it’ll eventually limp off.  Usually I would find such a tension between fact and invention fascinating; but, in this case, it made me incredibly uncomfortable.  Especially at the book’s dénouement, that is so full of promise, hope, happiness and life as to bathetically undermine the emotional premise and tone of the entire novel.

But maybe I’m taking all this too seriously, maybe the fact that this novel is based on true events isn’t meant to matter – but if that’s the case, then why do the book’s editors take such pains to constantly remind you of the novel’s historical inception?  From the blurb inside and on the back of the book, to the meticulous obsessing over precise dates and times within the narrative: the book screams at the reader: “This Rig Really Sank!”.  As hard as I tried: I just couldn’t ignore the truth behind the fiction.

And I did try; because sentence by sentence, word by word, February is beautifully written and constructed with intricacy and care.  The non-linear narrative skips and warps through the twenty-five year aftermath with masterful poise: doubling-back on itself, and back again, yet somehow always progressing the story forwards.  Moore’s physical description of place and weather (often tonally sympathetic to her characters’ moods) is enjoyable and powerfully evocative of the winter cold, or the waveforms of a disturbed ocean, a firework display viewed from a distance or, for that matter, anything Moore puts her mind to.  Make no mistake: there is nothing wrong with the writing itself.

I suppose that the best way to read February would be to imagine the entire scenario as a fiction.  In fact, I wish it were.  But there’s an unspoken spectre that haunts this narrative, one I just couldn’t ignore.  There’s an uncared for truth and reality that, unmentioned, reinforces an unsettling sense of artifice on the novel.  One day, probably soon, Lisa Moore is going to publish something incredible; this just isn’t it. She’s a very powerful, eloquent writer, and I look forward to reading something by her that isn’t problematized by a fiction/reality tension.

Tomcat