Photo: Ritchie Perez
Newfoundland writer Lisa Moore’s latest novel explores the antidote to violence
"This is How We Love" explores blood relations, chosen families and how trauma reverberates through the generations / BY Dene Moore / May 19th, 2022
Lisa Moore has been nominated for the Scotiabank Giller Prize three times, long-listed for the Booker Man Prize and won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Canada and the Caribbean, the Alistair Macleod Prize for Short Fiction and the Thomas Raddall Atlantic Fiction Award. She has written eight books, yet releasing a new one is still nerve-wracking.
“Even when it’s finished, I have very little distance from it, so I have no idea what people are going to think of it,” says the Newfoundland author of Alligator (2005), February (2010) and Caught (2014). “It’s always terrifying.”
Her latest novel, This is How We Love, explores the definition of family and the nature of love. It opens as Jules and her husband Joe are roused from sleep during a Mexican vacation by phone calls from her sister, Nell, and his sister, Nancy, calling from St. John’s to urge them to the hospital bedside of their 21-year-old son, Xavier, who has been viciously beaten and stabbed. A storm is coming, literally as well as metaphorically, and they get as far as Montreal, where Jules gets the only seat available on the next flight to Newfoundland.
As Xavier hovers between life and death, the family’s story reveals itself through shifting points of view from the present to the past. Jules contemplates the nature of family, created by blood and by choice, as Xavier struggles to recount the lifetime of events that led to the assault. That includes the traumatic story of his childhood friend Trinity, the foster child across the street who grew up in poverty and neglect, became a fixture in his family’s home and whose troubles became his own.
As it is in most of Moore’s work, the city of St. John’s and the province of Newfoundland loom large in the story’s telling. In a phone interview from her home in Conception Bay North, with “a roiling river at my back and the pounding ocean in front of me,” she says the book was inspired by rising violence in Newfoundland, especially among youth, as the province struggles with the latest economic ebb in decades of boom and bust cycles.
“We’re living in a time that, it seems to me, has become increasingly polarized and maybe meaner. There’s the rise to the far right, I would say, and a permission in in the culture to be maybe a little bit unkind and worse, sometimes a lot unkind,” she says. “It’s easy to be paralyzed by that kind of thing, and I wanted to think about what the antidote might be, and I think it might be love.”
Moore says that may sound simplistic, but the novel is an exploration of all the different ways we can love as well as the consequences of violence.
“I wanted to look at the repercussions of that, not just through the community of the present moment but back generations, if we can imagine that repercussions can reach back, but also to really look at why these things happen,” she says. “It’s not some kind of visiting evil; I don’t believe in evil. I think that kind of violence comes from a lack of a social safety net … and the way that we have, as Canadians and globally, begun to focus on the middle class instead of the poor. I feel like as the chasm grows between the one per cent and the rest of us, the poor are really left behind in the conversation and in many other ways as well.”
Moore’s elegant prose and eye for the telling detail are on full display in this, her fifth novel. As she sits beside Xavier’s hospital bed, Jules recalls the night she and Joe announced they were going to get married, which meant she would become a stepmother to Joe’s daughter Stella, and her soon-to-be mother-in-law offered some advice:
“She wanted me to know the different kinds of family there are, an infinite number, arbitrary in shape and form, and I had better be open to them all because it would be my job to hold it together, it was the pact we made, over the sacrament of dessert: whoever came through. Holdfast.
By way of parable she told the story of her own family, of her stepmother. Because if I were to marry Joe, I’d be a stepmother too.
It was a story she recounted often, with only minor variations in fact and tone, but the take-away? What she was actually telling me?
This is how we love.”
Moore says she has always been interested in themes of class and geography and characters who are “up against it.” As an associate professor of creative writing at the Memorial University of Newfoundland, she says she is inspired by the work of her students. “We’re basically on the same piece of geography, but the worlds they are creating are always different than my own,” she says.
A mother herself, she recognizes there are all kinds of love and parenthood is not necessarily being a mother or father by blood, but can be any kind of relationship with a child. That responsibility has led her to think about what kind of world she’ll be leaving behind for her children.
“I feel like all of the children belong to all of us – and we’re responsible for them whether we had them or not – and the same can be said for old people, too, and everyone in between.”