Actor and author Paul Rowe won this year’s $12,500 BMO Winterset Award for his novel, The Last Half of the Year, which was published by Killick Press in the spring of 2016.
In The Last Half of the Year, a father and his son’s coming of age stories criss-cross each other. The book is divided into chapters named after months, and each chapter is composed of a series of short vignettes set in the titular month.
The narration moves back and forth in time and switches between Saul Dade and his son, Jason Dade’s perspectives. The narrative structure emphasizes the similarities and differences between the two men’s experiences of leaving home for the first time; Jason for university and then the mainland in the 1970s, and Saul as a marine in WW2.
Home for the Dades is Brithlayn, Newfoundland which Saul describes as not, “a town, and certainly not a community; it was simply a place, as if defined by location alone and not it’s past or people.”
Rowe is especially talented at describing nature and his crystal clear prose make it easy to visualize the rural “place” that defines the men his characters become.
The lyrical descriptions of nature’s abundance in Birthlayn make it feel edenic. We learn early on that most parts of Birthlayn were not named until Jason’s generation “…came along…” a detail that enforces Birthlayn’s biblical feel.
On the first page, the narrator reflects on where the name Birthlayn might have come from, suggesting it may be a reference to the place’s physical landscape or maybe to a local legend about a woman who gave birth alone on the barachois, all the narrator can say for sure is that it’s genesis is “…something of a mystery…”
Although the novel is full of subtly conveyed coming-of-age realizations, a mystery tinged with myth propels the book’s plot. Both Saul and Jason are characterized as hardworking, moral, and studious with a knack for seeing the beauty in things. There is an implication that their good character is a result of being born and raised in idyllic Birthlayn.
When Jason leaves for university, an unfortunate incident strips the good out of him, leaving him a shell of his Birthlayn-self. Saul sends Jason on a trip to the mainland to find a character named The Man who has the power to redeem him.
During Jason’s search for The Man, he has prophetic visions of where he might find him. The reader’s desire to learn more about Jason’s enigmatic saviour makes The Last Half of the Year a quick read in spite of it’s dense descriptive passages.
During Saul’s own becoming-a-man-outside-of-Birthlayn adventure he becomes obsessed with learning more about his family’s history, because, the narrator explains, “… if he would never have a life outside Birthlayn he could at least entertain some sense of life before Brithlayn…”
This is novel is about place and how the place we grow up shapes who we become. So much of both Jason and Saul’s identity is caught up in the mythic Birthlayn that it is impossible for either of them to leave the place behind completely.