Barnacle Love by Anthony De Sa is the story of the Rebolo family. It begins when Manuel Rebolo is a boy living on the Azores. His father is dead, lost while fishing for cod. His mother is determined that Manuel will be successful, he will be something. Therefore, all the family’s resources go into ensuring this goal. Manuel’s younger siblings do not get to go to a private school, they do not get to wear good clothes, nor do they get the choicest food. Manuel is aware of the disparity and works hard to make the sacrifice worthwhile. He does not want his siblings to hate him.
Unfortunately for his mother and her plans for him, Manuel’s education teaches him how inconsequential the poor fishing village where he lives is, how small the island, and how big and full of opportunity is the world. Manuel decides he has to get out of town but the only way he knows how is to sign up as a fisherman on a cod boat. When the fishing takes them north and the ship puts in on the Canadian coast to restock, Manuel decides he is going to stay in Canada. The day he decides to leave, however, he realizes he has forgotten the crucifix that belonged to his father on the ship. When he runs back to retrieve it, the ship is just getting ready to set sail and he is trapped onboard.
As fate would have it, however, a few days later fishing away from the ship in his little boat, he gets lost in a thick fog. He drifts on the ocean for days until his small boat is swamped by a large wave. Manuel struggles as long as he can but weariness wins out and he sinks below the water to be miraculously caught up in a Canadian fisherman’s net. He is hauled aboard the boat, gasping for air, exhausted and weak from his days at sea without food or water, but alive.
So Manuel finds himself in Canada after all. He spends nearly a year in the cabin of his rescuer, who turns out to be a widowed alcoholic, falls in love with his daughter and learns a little English. But in the end he is betrayed and makes his way to the city where he had originally planned to jump ship where he finds employment at the busy hotel of a Portuguese man who teaches Manuel more English and how to be Canadian. But Manuel is forced to leave when he is recognized and sure to be deported back to the Azores.
Here we skip past about ten years of Manuel’s life and when next we meet him he has a wife who he went back to the Azores to find, a daughter and a son. Manuel’s life is not easy, he works hard, his wife works hard, but he owns a house and he loves Canada and has dreams of being successful. He has dreams for his son too:
Antonio’s gentleness aroused a fervent love for his son. But, it also frightened Manuel; his son was too meek, too full of his mother’s milk to live out his promise.
Antonio’s older sister has all the energy and sass that Antonio lacks, but of course Manuel sees this as a hindrance for a girl whose job it is to find a good husband and make a family.
Events transpire and the hope that Manuel had of being successful fades away. Alcohol dulls the pain and helps him forget that he once had dreams. This, however, does not stop him from trying to force Antonio into fulfilling his dreams for him:
“Why you no do math? I no come to this country for you to make pictures of birds.”
My ears were burning. He knew I wanted to draw. Even though my teachers told him I was special, had a real gift, he always snorted his anger in the same way. “Business,” he’d say, “he will be a businessman.”
Manuel never realizes he is doing the same thing to his son that his mother did to him. Or perhaps, in the end, he does. I cannot tell you more than that for fear of giving too much away. The ending is sad and surprising but not unappropriate.
Along with the dreams for a better life, are issues that the first generation children of immigrants must cope with. Do you embrace the country where you were born and deny the country and culture of your parents? But even if this is your choice, you look different than other kids, they know your parents are from a different country. You can’t quite fit in. The book is also a story about family and the things they do to one another, the hurt and the betrayal wrapped up in love and well meaning.
The book is De Sa’s first novel and is semi-autobiographical. De Sa’s parents came to Canada from Portugal and made a life in Toronto’s Portuguese community. I will be curious to see what he does in the future.
I received my copy of Barnacle Love from Algonquin Books. To read about the immigrant experience right now with the uproar caused by Arizona’s immigration law was a good reminder about the immigrant origins of the majority of people living in the United States. How quickly we forget about the dreams that brought our parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, great-greats and so on to this country. How easy we find it to dismiss the dreams of others.
Algonquin sent me two copies of Barnacle Love so you have a chance to own one for yourself. All are welcome to enter. Drawing for the winner will be held Friday evening. To enter all you have to do is leave a comment. If you have a good book about the immigrant experience (no matter where that experience takes place) to recommend, please include that in your comment too. If I get enough recommendations I will put together a list to post on Friday for the list lovers in all of us.