"Newfoundland seemed too severe and formidable, too provocative, too extravagant and singular and harrowing to be real," notes an American doctor when he first encounters the remote settlement of Paradise Deep. But the territory's freezing, wind-blasted shore is real enough to its inhabitants. Indeed, the struggling fisher-folk of Michael Crummey's multi-generational fable, which won a Commonwealth prize and an Impac shortlisting on its 2009 publication in Canada, are the very embodiment of the brutal extremism the doctor observes. This is no country for old men – or anyone else for that matter. Galore's 18th-century Newfoundlanders eke out hardscrabble existences marked by physical strife, family feuds, superstition and gruesome fortune. Every year the Arctic winters bring extended periods of near-starvation in which ships languish, icebound, for months on end. With prosperity a distant dream, life is reduced to a test of endurance.
When the starving locals cut open a beached whale to discover a live, mute, reeking albino inside, they christen him Judah. Judah's unexplained arrival in the novel's opening chapter is echoed 100 or so years later in its close, when his war-scarred descendant Abel, spotting a whale, intuits what his miraculous inheritance demands of him. This Marquezian device deftly illustrates the local expression "Now the once", interpreted by the doctor as meaning "the present twined with the past to mean soon, a bit later, some unspecified point in the future. As if it was all the same finally, as if time was a single moment endlessly circling on itself."
If Crummey presents time as a Moebius strip, then place – specifically, Paradise Deep itself – is character. The wordless Judah may bookend the novel, but it soon emerges that he is no more its driving force than any of the settlement's other eccentric denizens. These include the ruthless patriarch King-me Sellers and his nemesis, the furiously proud Widow Devine, founders of the two rival dynasties whose descendants – complete with extended entourages – populate the pages.
Substituting an entire, shifting community for a small core of central characters is a riskily ambitious undertaking but Crummey, who has the eye of a magpie and the ear of a lyrical poet, attacks it with formidable panache. His shore-dwellers are unashamedly queer fish: scoundrels, DIY submarine-builders, "sodomite" union organisers, martyred housekeepers and drunken opera-singers. They embark on adultery, commit murder, and succumb to sex-hungry priests or dour Methodism. Their tongue-tied, agonised courtships end in blurted proposals or forced marriages which founder as soon as the next generation is conceived. Blighted by warts and webbed fingers, maimed by frostbite or accidental immersion in boiling scum-vats, they battle stutters, narcolepsy and shameful sexual urges, and annually endure the taunts of grotesquely masked mummers who expose the secrets of the vulnerable in an orgy of raucous innuendo.
Crummey has drunk deep from the largely abandoned well of magic realism, and his intoxication with its possibilities is infectious. So much so that for the first third of the book, the pages almost turn themselves. He is a master of raising a question and then answering it three, five or ten chapters later, and his orchestration of muscular gossip, old wives' tales and quasi-miracles breathes with the rhythm of the tides.
But the more his shore-folk proliferate across time, the more urgently both compass and map are called for. Perhaps in anticipation of this, Crummey has provided two family trees tracing the central bloodlines. But as I repeatedly riffled back to double-check who married, fathered, shamed, murdered or lusted after whom, a frustration with the novel's overcrowding and lack of direction began to grow. Many equally populated but much longer novels have been written without navigational equipment being necessary. Inexorably, as the narrative's propulsion faltered, the thrill of the ride diminished. And by the time the final flourish came, the magic spell cast at the outset had worn somewhat thin.
Perhaps any ensemble narrative encompassing two extended families and spanning two centuries is doomed to suffer both from a lack of deep characterisation and the absence of a single over-arching storyline. Word for word, page for page, and chapter for chapter, Galore is magnificent. Crummey has cast his net wide and hauled in a vivid, glorious catch. But while it's normally the little fish that slip away, I couldn't help feeling that in this case, it was the really big ones.
• Liz Jensen's The Uninvited will be published by Bloomsbury Circus in July.
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