Thursday, June 28, 2012

Book Review: The Town that Forgot How to Breathe, by Kenneth J. Harvey


The Town that Forgot How to Breathe was a book I impulsively chose by its cover (and I've seen several reviews that started the same way). Though I had never heard of it, I'm very glad I did, because this strangely charming and incredibly eerie book -- part horror story, part eco-parable, all magically weird -- got under my skin with its vivid imagery and unusual setting.

Formerly a rich fishing ground, the tiny Newfoundland village of Bareneed's maritime industry has collapsed from overfishing, and the town and its inhabitants are slipping into a depression both economic and existential. But something strange is afoot in Bareneed: when several locals fall ill with an unrecognizable breathing disorder (viral? hysterical? fatal?), and perfectly-preserved dead bodies start washing up on the rocky shore, that's only the tip of the iceberg that eventually draws ghosts, sea monsters and military intervention into one -- mostly quite effective -- tall tale.

Harvey constructs TTTFHTB around a rotating set of POV characters, among them a local doctor and a police officer, both capable but out of their depth; a beatific little old lady who knows more than she's letting on; a man-child whose painted apocalyptic visions are coming to pass; and a "townie" fisheries officer with roots in Bareneed, who takes a summer-rental with his eight-year-old daughter. It's a large cast of characters for a small town, but Harvey gives them each a unique voice and perspective on the mysteries unfolding around them.

Only one of the many narrative threads falls short of its initial promise, which left me wondering if it might have been better left out -- but that same thread also offers up some of the most chilling and atmospheric scenes in the novel, so I'll let that shortcoming slide. I have seen very mixed reviews  -- I expect you either like this sort of fiction, or you don't. I'm giving TTTFHTB 4.5 enthusiastic stars. If Stephen King's creepy, insular Maine towns appeal, if you loved the myth and magic of "The X-Files," if you enjoy a dank whiff of Lovecraftian horror, or if you've ever dreamed of seeing a mermaid, this book should be right in your wheelhouse.

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