My 2011 reading got off to a breathtaking start with Joe Denham’s second collection of poetry, vividly and appropriately titled Windstorm. A dense read that was both exhilarating and almost exhausting, I mused as to what Denham might do next.
I didn’t have long to wait. Denham’s first novel, The Year of Broken Glass, arrived this spring with the impact of a strong, bracing blast of cold, refreshing, snow-tinged rain, sluicing the winter away and preparing the earth for new growth. I didn’t have long to wonder, either, as I cleared the “to be read” decks as quickly as I could to get swept into this spellbinding tale.
As Joe Denham unspools the fraught and increasingly fantastical story of Canadian west coast fisherman Francis (aka Ferris) Wichbaun, the intense layering of imagery that is sometimes overwhelming in Denham’s poetry seems to have more room to breathe in the extended novel form. Ferris is tormented and admittedly duplicitious in love, he struggles with an equally conflicted love of the sea, the world around him is in mounting upheaval as a number of natural disasters strike … and then a singular glass object that could mean his fortune and future or could mean something more troubling and sinister pretty literally floats into the midst of it all. Ferris’ emotions and circumstances are ripe for rich and vivid treatment, but also easily threaten to become overwrought. Somehow, Denham forges clear navigation through his captivating novel, even as the seas grow literally stormy, but also as the storyline and character interactions and connections grow more and more complex.
As that complexity drives its way into the evil equivalent of one deus ex machina and then another, what is meant to be “real” and what is possibly fanciful blurs. What is real and what is the fevered imaginations, perceptions and delusions of several of the characters – Denham also takes on multiple voices and perspectives with surprising mastery – also blurs, with the disorienting but still strangely compelling feel of failed literary experiments such as The Raw Shark Texts. But somehow, Denham still keeps muscular control of his plot and characters to keep them on course for a satisfying conclusion that is believable in the context of what has gone on before.
The pervasive metaphoric layers in The Year of Broken Glass bolster the story and character development without tipping into the overwhelming or feeling forced. Denham has created unforgettable, strongly sculpted characters and a cinematic sweep of dramatic circumstance and plot that will stick with the reader for a long time.
Thank you to the author, Joe Denham, and Nightwood Editions for providing a review copy of The Year of Broken Glass.