Let's start with what the novel is about. It is about Helen O'Mara, whose husband Cal died on the Ocean Ranger oil rig off the coast of Newfoundland one stormy Valentines' night. It's about how she copes with desperate grief, in the face of which time resolutely refuses to stand still - pregnant Helen has to summon all her strength and raise their four young children without Cal. The narrative moves back and forth in time, and we see Helen at various stages of a long life. Somehow she pulls through. She has lost the love of her life, but she is surrounded by those who love her with so much of theirs.
The reason why I am at a loss is that February is rich with emotion that is difficult to convey. At the core of the novel, the glue that holds it together, is the love between Helen and Cal. It is the kind of love that occurs only at the exact moment your stars are aligned. So there is happiness. Great happiness. And then, tragedy. Now Helen must learn how to continue loving Cal after his death. Despite the sombre story, Moore keeps to a simple, conversational narrative that is not saccharine or heavy. Like this:
Somehow Helen had picked up the idea that there was such a thing as love, and she had invested fully in it. She had summoned everything she was, every tiny little scrap of herself, and she'd handed it over to Cal and said: This is yours.
She said, Here's a gift for you, buddy.
Helen didn't say, Be careful with it, because she knew Cal would be careful. She was twenty and you could say she didn't know any better. That's what she says herself: I didn't know any better.
But that was the way it had to be. She could not hold back. She wasn't that kind of person; there was no holding back.
Somewhere Helen had picked up the idea that love was this: You gave everything. It wasn't just dumb luck that Cal knew what the gift was worth; that's why she gave it to him in the first place. She could tell he was the kind of guy who would know.
What is also seamlessly woven into the narrative is a subtle commentary on the personal impact of all those tragic and unnecessary accidents that we numbly watch over and over again on the news. The Ocean Ranger disaster was entirely preventable. We might read about the plain facts in the news reports and feel a vague film of uneasy sadness hanging over our shoulders. But a book like this forces us to confront the specifics. It puts us squarely in the shoes of the victims and their loved ones, so we understand that the real tragedy of a life lost is made up of all the mundane things that a person will never be able to do or experience again.
But what I love best about February is the way Moore captures little moments, glimpses of the human spirit, that make you ache a little inside. It's like she's a gifted photographer, but with words. (I saw a bit of this in Alligator too, but February is thick with it.) Like how she describes little ten-year-old John trying to look after his mum and sisters, and getting stomach pains from worry. Helen's sister Louise bringing groceries over, that she can barely afford. The taxi-driver who sends Helen to the hospital when she's about to deliver, throwing his lot into getting her there quicksafe. The angry truck driver who forgets his rage the moment he realizes Helen's husband died on the Ocean Ranger. Tiny little episodes that breathe life into a novel about death.
A word about the conclusion. It's a gratifying one, especially when we see that Helen did good - very good - with her children. As for her life after Cal, we are glad that time did not stand still after all.
It's a strange coincidence - and I swear it's a coincidence; I read random titles at random times - I've just discovered that the subjects of both this and my last post were longlisted for the 2010 Man Booker Prize, but neither made it to the shortlist. I don't have a view about The Thousand Autumns not making it except to say it was more plot-driven that I would expect of a Booker Prize nominee, but I do think it is a real pity February was not shortlisted. I've read somewhere that it is "too Canadian", which is bollocks. Then again I haven't read any titles in the 2010 shortlist so in case my indignation is misplaced I shall make it a point to do so. There you go - what did I say about reading random titles at random times!