Book Review: Michael Winter’s Minister without Portfolio

minister without portfolio

Not too long ago, Michael Winter bought and restored a pink, powerless, waterless home near Ochre Pit Cove in Newfoundland. His work on the home earned national news coverage when he fell into an incinerator at a dump and narrowly escaped with his life. The main character in his new novel follows suit. More than half of the novel takes place in Renews, where Henry is trying to acquire and renovate a somewhat ramshackle home. Winter does a good job of showcasing both two sides of Newfoundland – the urban and the rural, the townies and the baymen.

This, his fifth novel, starts out in St. John’s, where Henry Hayward is kicked to the curb by the one he loves. Luckily for Henry, escape from heartbreak comes easy: a childhood friend is a contractor doing work for the military in Kabul, and within maybe twenty pages of the novel, this friend lands Henry a gig in Afghanistan. But, just as Henry’s broken heart is mending, a bomb goes off, literally, and Henry is covered in guilt, and the blood of a dear friend. This is not a spoiler, relax.

Henry returns home, crushed, and seeking renewal in the aptly titled town of Renews. His friends have given him keys to their cabin, and within view of this cabin is the dilapidated home of his dead friend who, in Kabul, shared his plans for that house. It’s not long before Henry’s dedication to his friend extends beyond caring for this house to caring for his wife as well. The house, like the widow, is something Henry works his way up to owning: he actually circles the house one day. Henry’s preoccupation with this home, his need to get in there and fix it up, feels like a metaphoric manifestation of Henry breaking and entering on the space that should have been his friend’s. There is a line, “He stood in the kitchen, wondering about being there. He felt like an intruder.”

Like any Michael Winter book, his strength is his style. There is a calculated cadence and flow in these paragraphs that effortlessly seats readers in the story. Very little has to happen for you to want to read more. In particular, Michael’s dialogue is utterly distinct in Canadian fiction. It defines his characters well, and manages to portray everything you need to know about the relationship dynamic between the two people talking. Winter tells the story behind the story when his characters talk. In Minister without Portfolio, Winter’s well-known way with words is still present, but it’s newly packaged. While the term “lush minimalism” is clearly an oxymoron, it does capture the novel’s style. Less is seldom more, when it comes to a novel’s pivotal scenes, but Winter gets away with it. The entire novel orbits around a single event that gets half-a-page’s real estate.

Essentially, the novel is a character study of a man who’s been nicknamed a “Minister without Portfolio.” The term’s literal meaning is a politician with no specific responsibilities or causes — one who is aimless and vague in their intentions. It was the last thing this friend said to him before dying, and Henry struggles with what it means, what his friend meant, if it’s true. Whether or not his friend was right, there’s a quote in the book, etched into its blazing orange cover, and the quote says it all. For Henry, and for all of us.

He spoke of Henry as if he were an old shed built with found wood. Which he was. Which we all are.

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