The literature of empire keeps floating up from the verges of the British Commonwealth like buoys marking some drowned leviathan. It's writing that plays on two counterpoised registers: the nostalgia of the native for the pre-colonial land, and the nostalgia of the colonizer for the mother country. From the former, the writer draws enveloping fantasies; from the latter, an elegant melancholy. You can see these forces at work in the novels of Salman Rushdie, Peter Carey and V.S. Naipaul, and you can see them, too, in Wayne Johnston's new novel, "The Colony of Unrequited Dreams."
Johnston is a Newfoundlander. Newfoundland -- or, as one of Johnston's characters calls it, perhaps more appropriately, Old Lost Land -- is the oldest British colony, a hardscrabble island that for centuries was subject, as the book makes quite clear, to the idiocy of various crown schemes. It's as much a character in the novel as India is in "Midnight's Children," and to invest it with this status, the author needs a figure commensurate with the history of the place. By using Joe Smallwood, a historical personage, as his narrator, he finds a way of weaving a dreamlike course between fact and fiction.
Smallwood, who led Newfoundland into the Canadian Confederation in 1949, was to Newfoundland what Huey Long was to Louisiana: a power-happy populist and a local legend. He came from a family famous in the area for making boots. A black boot-shaped sign inscribed with the word "Smallwood" hung from a cliff in the harbor of St. Johns, the capital, where he was born. As his father, a windy drunk, is wont to point out during the first hundred pages (which constitute a virtuoso treatment of the family's downshifting circumstances), this is a boot on the neck of the family's dignity.
Johnston intersperses Smallwood's story with the journals and sardonic jottings of one Sheilagh Fielding, a sort of Newfoundland version of Dorothy Parker -- acerbic, unhappy in love, ungainly, affecting a silver-headed cane as though she were an Edwardian dandy. Smallwood, on the other hand, is preternaturally little and light: a mere 95 pounds at the age of 25. Their respective heights suggest a familiar literary couple, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza; but Fielding and Smallwood, one feels, should couple in the carnal sense. The dark comedy of the book is that they don't. Frozen by pride, each avoids the wound to self-esteem that fucking would risk.
Johnston has packed this novel with so many brilliant set pieces that in the end they drain the energy out of the plot -- something that doesn't matter as much as you might think. This is one of those books you read to be wrapped in its landscape and its weather: the multiply indented coastline, the perpetually inclement North, the "land-oblivious, sea-generated wind." In archetypal terms, a book is an island, too, a piece broken from the continent, apart from the main; its readers are enthralled castaways, searchers for footprints in the sand. New found land, indeed.