Coming To Age Near the Water | Review of “Barnacle Love” by Anthony De Sa (2008) Anchor Canada


After reading Anthony De Sa’s “Kicking The Sky” (Link to the Review) I decided to read his first novel “Barnacle Love.” This book shows a bit more of the family history of the Rebelo clan as they try to make their way through life in Canada in the 20th Century. De Sa has documented many of the angst that many of us feel who grew up in an ethnic setting in North America.

Page 4 – Of God and Cod

The Portuguese call it saudade: a longing for something so indefinite as to be indefinable. Love affairs, miseries of life, the way things were, people already dead, those who left and the ocean that tossed them on the shores of a different land – all things born of the soul that can only be felt. Manuel Antonio Rebelo was a product of this passion. He grew up with the tales of his father, a man who held two things most sacred. God and cod – bacalhau – and not always in that order. His father’s words formed vivid pictures of grizzled brave fishermen and whale hunters who left their families for months to fish the great waters off Terra Nova, the new land. Visions of mothers shrouded in black, of confused wives – the pregnant ones feeling alone, the others glad for the respite from pregnancy – spun in his mind. And then there were the scoured children, waving in their Sunday finery. The small boys bound in worn but neatly pressed blazers and creased shorts. The little girls scattered like popcorn in their outgrown Communion dresses as they watched their fathers’ ascents onto magnificent ships. In his dreams Manuel saw the men with their torn and calloused hands, faces worn, dark and toughened by the salted mist. As a child he would sit by the cliffs for hours, dangling his bare feet over the side of the hundred-foot drop to the shore, kicking the rock with his pink heels, placing his hands over his eyes to shield the sunlight, already yearning for the fading figures of the White Fleet. “One day I’ll disappear,” he’d say aloud.

De Sa has a great sense in the use of words but it is also refreshing to read his take on the coming-of-age novel. The ethnic households of which many of us grew up in were not always floral costumes and flowing foreign languages. There were strife and conflicts in those households as the 20th Century drew to the close as old-world ideals clashed with life in North America.

Page 72-73 – Made of Me

Manuel passed by his brother Jose, who sat at the kitchen dinette drinking a beer. Manuel moved to sink and smiled as he helped Antonio to sit atop the counter. Manuel knew his son – the boy he named after the father he himself barely knew – would need his guidance to grow into a proper man, the kind of man that would thrive in this land he had made his home. Manuel raised a bottle of Molson’s Export Ale to his lips. The blue ship with all those sails on the label always reminded him of the place his family came from, of the Portuguese with their proud tradition of shipbuilding and exploration. “Jose, what exactly-” Manuel stopped, not because he didn’t know what to ask but because he was afraid the question would lead him to a place he was quite content to leave alone. “What happened to Candida? You were there, you saw it.” “Estupida. She was so stupid, that girl, sometimes,” Jose said. Jose recounted the story, how Candida had found a red lipstick under a church pew, how she always had ideas of being a movie star, the kind that filled the smoky screens, always doing her hair in crimped waves when their mother just wanted her to get the house in order, to wash the dishes or sweep. “It happened shortly after you left; soon after we thought you were  . . . dead, at sea. Mae was distraught and . . .” Manuel looked over at his six-year-old son to see if the words his brother had spoken had entered the boy’s head. He thought for an instant that it might be best to ask his son to leave, but chose not to. It was important to know things; knowledge was a kind of protection. Parents had an obligation to teach, he thought. Antonio just sat on the counter, prodding the dead fish in the sink with a straw.

De Sa also has documented something typically Canadian in these stories here. Not something full with blustering patriotism but something honest and gritty at times. These are stories about growing up that tell what growing up was truly like.

Page 165 – Senhor Canada

11:14 A.M. A canvassing politician arrived just before lunch. “Hello, Mr . . .” – he looked at his clipboard – ‘”Rebelo? You’re a fine Canadian to honour your country this way.” “Yes, I Canadian.” “Well, the arrogance of this government,” He shook his head for effect. “This prime minister is destroying – ” “Who?” “Mr. Trudeau is destroying the very fabric of -” “Out!” my father hollered. He shouted it again, louder so that he could be heard over the anthem. “Out! Get-out-a-here!” My father strained his neck and gestured a kick, the same way he was taught to kick a football – with the inside of his foot, toes pointing outward. “I don’t understand – ” the politician squirmed. “I come from Portugal twenty-three-ago-years.” His thick accent was made thicker by his drunken slur. “I come to Canada with no cash-money-my feet is my shoes! My hands, they hard!” He pounded his chest; I heard the muffled hollowness. “Trudeau is the man. He promise to make things easy for bring my family over here. He keep his promise. The ever-smiling politician slowly made his way out, closing the gate behind him.

Anthony De Sa has written a brilliant coming-of-age novel with Barnacle Love. He documents well the concept of growing up in an ethnic household in the 1970s and is definitely a writer worth following.

Link to Anthony De Sa’s Website

Link to Random House’s page for “Barnacle Love”

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