Michael Winter’s Minister Without Portfolio was one of the five novels nominated as this year’s Canada Reads choices – which landed it squarely on my immediate TBR.
I have to admit that the initial description gleaned from the inside flap did not thrill me: man goes to Iraq with the military, has a bad experience, returns to Newfoundland to attempt to piece his life together.
But luckily for me, this is one of those cases where judging a book by its cover turns out terribly wrong, because Minister Without Portfolio is easily the best book I’ve read yet this year. I’ve only read two out of the five Canada Reads selections so far, but I already know which one I’m rooting for.
Fun fact: Minister Without Portfolio was nominated for the Giller Prize the same year as Lynn Coady’s Hellgoing (and you can read my review here) but didn’t even make it to the short list. (For the record: this is not a choice I agree with, Giller Prize Committee of 2013!)
First of all, the premise (and no spoilers that you wouldn’t find on the inside flap, don’t worry):
After a bad breakup, Henry decides to take a contract in Iraq – putting up buildings and wiring walls with electricity. As luck would have it, he finds himself working alongside his old friend Tender, who is on his last tour of duty before moving home for good.
But then Tender is killed, and Henry is sent home again with another sort of heartbreak in his pocket.He’s left walking the same old Newfoundland streets, feeling responsible for Tender’s death and trying to piece together the life his friend left behind: his girlfriend Martha is pregnant, and the old house Tender always meant to fix up and move into sits empty, quietly falling further apart with each storm.
Henry often went away to work but came back. Now he would have to stay and resolve a few things. He knew why he was leaving work but he wasn’t sure why he returned to Newfoundland. Home. It held a gravity, some kind of atmospheric orbit that spiralled him towards the centre whenever he exhausted things out there in the world. Jesus I sound like a salmon. Like a lot of Newfoundlanders, though, he pictured an acre of land in his head that was his land.
So Henry does what he sees as the only sensible thing: he decides to take care of Martha, and the baby, and the house – fixing it up board by board, digging a new well, painting and wiring and cleaning.
He must literally and figuratively rebuild – not only his life, but Tender’s.
This is just a perfectly, quintessentially Canadian metaphor. I mean, come on – can you think of a more Canadian plot device than returning to small-town Newfoundland and repairing an ancient house? It seems like the sort of plot device that Alistair MacLeod would sell his children to write about. And yet, in Winter’s hands, it avoids being stiflingly nationalistic or heavy-handed.
Instead, it’s honest: immersive, and candid. Winter’s prose and dialogue is presented all in a rush – no quotation marks, few signs to show who is speaking, passages that swap from third-person description to inner thoughts without much warning at all. The reader sees everything – the good, the bad, the kind, the cruel, the hopeful, the self-loathing. As Henry tries to take stock of his life, so does the reader. And I think we both come to the same conclusion: what’s broken can be put back together again, despite all odds.
The only gripe I have with this book is the title – and even that’s a complaint I’m willing to relent on. But you have to admit that, at first glance, it scans as dry and governmental. To be perfectly honest, at first I thought this was the title of Michael Ignatieff’s memoir.
By the end of the novel even I have to grudgingly admit that the title suits the book perfectly. “Minister without portfolio” is the position conferred upon Henry by Tender – something that starts as a joke, a nickname in passing. You’re not committed to anything but you got a hand in everywhere, Tender explains.
On one hand, Henry takes “minister without portfolio” as an ugly reminder that he has nothing – no wife, no children, no house, no plans for the future.
But as Henry also learns, this means he has the chance to choose exactly how he wants to fill his portfolio – to go where he is needed most, to provide for and protect those around him, to settle into the community he doesn’t feel he deserves and care for it as much as it cares for him.
And that’s really what Minister Without Portfolio is all about. So I guess the title fits.
(For the record, Michael Ignatieff has yet to write a memoir.)