Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1979. ISBN 0140047263
Malcolm Lowry is famous for two things: his gargantuan appetite for alcohol, and for producing one of the twentieth century's finest novels, Under the volcano. He is also known for living for a time in a squatter's shack on the beach in British Columbia, which burnt down during the War.
Lowry has had as many novels published after his death as before, thanks to the devotion of his wife Margerie, herself a writer. There is an "Editor's note" at the end of this work that explains that what we have in October ferry to Gabriola is all Lowry's work, but assembled by Margerie: she explains that some themes and characters in the novel have not been fully executed as Lowry intended, but she decided against adding anything that was not written by him.
Like Under the volcano, October ferry to Gabriola draws heavily on Lowry's life; his drinking, his flawed relationships, and his time in his shack at Dollarton. We meet the main protagonists - Ethan Llewellyn and his wife Jacqui - on a Greyhound bus heading for Gabriola Island to look at property to start a new life. Through a series of flashbacks, the story of Ethan emerges. He is a man haunted by the suicide of his College roommate, a death he feels he could have prevented, and in some ways may have provoked, but that he can't remember clearly owing to being drunk at the time (drinking being a recurring theme of this novel).
He becomes a lawyer, and spends a short time in the Army during the war, but not in combat. When he comes home, his house burns down during a series of unexplained fires around the area (fire being another recurring theme of this novel). He and Jacqui then spend some years squatting in a shack on the inlet, before the threat of eviction sees them move unhappily to an apartment in Vancouver. Ethan can't bear the thought of losing their shack; Jacqui has an old friend who lives on Gabriola Island, where there is a house (or is it a block of land?) for sale - hence the bus trip.
On this story Lowry hangs many themes: whether someone has a fate, or whether they might be cursed, how, if we think we are a plaything of fate, we begin to lose the power to make decisions, and how faith can be highly desired but still unattainable. He shows how guilt can paralyse a man, and how a simple life can redeem him.
While this book has an ending, it is unfinished in other ways. Ethan and Jacqui have a son that rarely makes an appearance; Jaqui's father, 'The McCandless', who is versed in the occult, apparently was meant to be a bigger presence in the novel, and there are some extended scenes in the book that seem to be part of a plotline that goes nowhere (an example being a long strange thought sequence, or is it a conversation? in a bar about capital punishment).
This is a modernistic work in some ways, with both Ethan and Jacqui searching for meaning, and Ethan, after their house burns down, getting drawn into thinking that his life was causing all the fires in town. In fact at that stage of the novel his and Jacqui's lives are spiralling out of control, due to their heavy drinking. Both Ethan and Jacqui spent large portions of this novel under the influence, and sometimes the writing reflects that, when coherence begins to slip.
There is no doubt that Lowry is a magnificent writer; although at times he can be wordy, and those words can have a touch of baroque about them, his ability to create magnificent descriptive passages are in evidence here. The reader sees the beauty of the inlet, the squalor of the bars in Canada, the destruction of old Vancouver in prose that both grabs the reader and draws them on.
Ethan's attachment to the shack becomes almost overwhelming during the course of the book, so much so that it seems that he will lose the chance to move forward into a new phase of his life on Gabriola. When the ferry initially turns back, it seems all is lost, but when Ethan and Jacqui get an important piece of news, it enables Ethan to take the first steps towards his future. After a novel of disappointment, fear and loathing, it seems that, in the dark of the night and silhouetted by flaming trees, hope has been rekindled. One has the feeling that Lowry was hoping to follow the same path - a hope that was dashed before he completed this book, with his death in 1957.
This book should not be the first Lowry that a reader should tackle - Under the volcano is better put together and is a finished masterpiece, albeit with a more tragic plot than October ferry to Gabriola - but if you have read and enjoyed Under the volcano, October ferry to Gabriola is well worth reading.
Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell