It's kind of amazing how much three days can change how we feel about a month. February always feels like it flies by, like it's so much shorter than every other month, but really, it's not that far removed from January. The real difference is that we expect February to make up for its shortness by cramming it full of other things. First there's Groundhog Day, then Valentine's, then Family Day (if you live in Ontario). It's a month filled with manufactured and relatively insincere holidays, but for some reason, having a calendar holiday in almost every week just serves to make the month go by more quickly. Unless, of course, February is an annual reminder of loss, of change, of bleak skies and dangerous storms. The Ocean Ranger, an oil rig off the coast of Newfoundland, sank on Valentine's Day 1982; there were no survivors. For the families of the men who died, February suddenly became the month around which their year pivoted, mercifully short because of the emotional impact it smacked them with every year. In her novel February, Lisa Moore tells the story of Helen O'Mara, whose husband Cal died on the Ocean Ranger. Moore's characters are fictional, but her story, and the way it ebbs and flows around the events of Feb. 14, 1982, speak of very real lives.
Rather than taking a linear approach to the story, with the Ocean Ranger disaster the initial conflict or later apex, Moore roams through the lives of her characters. The novel's present is more or less now, and its real-time story line takes place over a little more than a year. Moving in and out of this straight and forward-moving plot line run all the lines of Helen's memory, as well as an extended aside about her son John. John doesn't live in St. John's, but after finding out that he is going to have a child with a woman he hardly knows, he decides to come home. His musings and late-night phone calls ground the novel in the present, reminding you that there is more to life – both his and his mother's – than their shared tragedy.
Helen is much less grounded in a day-to-day reality. That isn't to say that she spends all her time in bed crying – she left those days behind her long ago – but her narrative often floats around in time in a way that reminds you of how present the past is for her. Helen's memories of her children growing up, of her early days with Cal, of hearing about the Ocean Ranger, are vivid in their detail and sharp in their emotion. Her desperate need to recreate what happened, to understand the rig and how it worked, as a way to better understand how it could have sunk so quickly, is painful to read, but also understandably cathartic for her. If she can just understand what happened, if she can just picture what Cal was doing, then maybe she can find peace. But there were no survivors, so no one can tell her for sure.
The way Moore links and builds Helen's memories allows her life to slowly form around you, as if she is someone you are really getting to know. People don't tell their life stories in a straightforward way, they let out big moments and easy details first, not sharing the smaller, more personal, less obviously consequential pieces until later. In some ways, Helen's grief is easier to focus on and talk about then the happy memories below it, or the chance for happiness now. Being sad in the face of great tragedy is much less awkward and embarrassing than sharing the happy, personal memories you have of your dead husband. Reading February is about getting to know Helen by grieving with her. You miss Cal the way she does because of the way she remembers him; as a reader, you regret that you couldn't have met him before his death.
But slowly, Helen's present day begins out win out over her memories. Little by little, her daily routine becomes the more prominent storyline, as if Moore is subtly hinting at the way even people who live in their memories can be pulled back into real life. Moore does this without resorting to cliché moments; there is no eureka moment for Helen, no one action that spurs her toward actively participating in her own life. Rather, she is drawn out. She doesn't say goodbye to Cal exactly, but she allows him to recede in favour of someone new.
February is one of the most beautifully written books I have read in a long time. The cadence of the language, and the way the word choice reflects the description not just in tangible accuracy but in tone makes for a novel that is greatly coloured by the emotions of the characters. Dialogue flows in and out of description and memory and the consistency of Helen's voice is strangely comforting. February is as much about tone as it is plot, and the way Moore has combined the two makes for a story that is, at times quite breathtaking. If I could spend every month with Moore, I surely would.
by Lisa Moore
First published in 2009 (cover image show from House of Anansi Press edition)