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The Town That Forgot How to Breathe
Kenneth J. Harvey
St. Martin's Press, 471 pages

The Town That Forgot How to Breathe
Kenneth J. Harvey
Kenneth J. Harvey is the Canadian author of 14 books, including Directions for an Opened Body, a finalist for the Commonwealth Writers Prize; Brud, shortlisted for the Books in Canada First Novel Award; and The Hole that Must Be Filled. His novel Nine Tenths Unseen and the here reviewed The Town That Forgot How To Breathe have been praised by Nobel Prize Laureate J.M. Coetzee. His editorials have been published widely in Canadian newspapers, and he recently began writing a weekly column for a new Newfoundland paper, The Sunday Independent. He has held the post of Writer-in-residence at both the University of New Brunswick and Memorial University of Newfoundland. He lives in an outport in Newfoundland, Canada.

REVIEWS OF The Town That Forgot How To Breathe: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Georges T. Dodds

Bareneed is a small fishing village on the Newfoundland coast, and, what part of the community the loss of the cod fishery hasn't killed, modern technology is finishing off by distancing people from their long held traditions. The recently separated Joseph Blackwood, a fisheries officer, returns to his family home, bringing his young daughter. When Davy Jones' locker begins to spew out albino fish, and the long ago dead-at-sea, there's clearly something up. The living begin to develop a serious and, at first, fatal respiratory condition which is preceded by outbursts of anger. Blackwood's daughter is led off to the sea by a sea-drowned girl's ghost, and he begins to succumb to the disease. But even with the army on site, things are only going get to worse.

While from a literary perspective, The Town That Forgot How to Breathe generally does things right — complexity, underlying deeper messages, good character development (especially in an old crone named Eileen Laracy and Dr. Thompson), one individual's well-portrayed descent into madness, and the recreation of the atmosphere of small town life—but as horror-fantasy, or mystery it left me rather indifferent. Indeed, many other reviews, including a snippet from a recent winner of the Nobel prize for literature, praise the novel's literary merits.

In terms of horror, some have compared Kenneth J. Harvey's work to that of Stephen King, but since my reading of King is limited to two titles I won't comment. However, to me The Town That Forgot How to Breathe simply isn't scary, and while a Newfoundland fishing village's atmosphere was well recreated, little horror atmosphere is developed (if you want to see what has recently creeped me out, see Mervyn Peake's "Boy in Darkness"). The whole thing was a bit like an unremarkable X-Files episode. Others have drawn a parallel between H.P. Lovecraft's "The Shadow over Innsmouth" and The Town That Forgot How to Breathe, but besides the commonality of ancient crumbling fishing villages, the horrors and that which underlies them are clearly different, as are, of course, the writers' styles. If anything, The Town That Forgot How to Breathe is more topically related to Lord Dunsany's late novel The Curse of the Wise Woman of revolt against modern man disturbing a long-standing wetland. It also has strong parallels to another Canadian author's work, Eric McCormack's The Mysterium, where people in a small Scottish mining town are plagued with the eventually fatal inability to stop talking. As for mystery, it is indeed one, as beyond the fact that the loss of traditions is said to lead to the whole mess, no physical-biological explanations are given for any of the resulting events, leaving one to wonder what or who translates the lack of traditions into submarine upheavals and pathogenesis.

You may enjoy The Town That Forgot How to Breathe as a literary work with a message of tradition over technology, just don't expect to be overly scared or intrigued by the events occurring in it.

Copyright © 2006 Georges T. Dodds

Georges Dodds is a research scientist in vegetable crop physiology, who for close to 25 years has read and collected close to 2000 titles of predominantly pre-1950 science-fiction and fantasy, both in English and French. He writes columns on early imaginative literature for WARP, the newsletter/fanzine of the Montreal Science Fiction and Fantasy Association and maintains a site reflecting his tastes in imaginative literature.

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