After receiving rave reviews in publications all across Canada, Newfoundland Author Joel Thomas Hynes’ new book We’ll All Be Burnt In Our Beds Some Night has been nominated for the country’s biggest literary prize, The Scotiabank Giller Prize, and has won the esteemed Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction.
Hynes is the author of three other novels, as well as several scripts for the stage and screen. His work is often about humanizing hardcases; many of his protagonists are tough young men who’ve been shaped by a difficult upbringing in rural Newfoundland. Hynes is interested in fate, a lot of his protagonists have been told all their lives they’re bad and come to believe it, and act accordingly, but not without remorse. We’ll All be Burned In Our Beds Some Night’s Johnny is no exception.
When the book opens Johnny is on probation, awaiting trial for assaulting his ex-girlfriend. He’s leaning out a bedroom window on Lime Street, smoking and watching his neighbour put out the garbage. He’s thinking how nice it must be to have your life together enough to remember to put out the garbage. When the neighbour calls out “Good night” and “excuse me..what?” it sends Johnny into a rage, thinking the man is being, “Right grand about it.”
Most of the book is written in the third person but there are places, like in this scene with the pompous garbage guy, where the narration momentarily slips into first person. This shift between first and third person is a way of establishing Johnny as an unreliable narrator, as someone who is crafting a story in a way that benefits him and presenting it as objective.
For most of the book, Johnny is vehement that he did not attack his girlfriend. But the trips in the narrative voice, combined with the unwarranted aggression in the first scene subtly let the reader know that we can’t trust Johnny’s account. He’s not an obviously monstrous predator who assaults strangers, he’s the more common, harder-to-spot kind of abuser. He is charming, funny, and very much in love with his ex-girlfriend, but also devastatingly guilty of attacking her.
When Johnny’s ex-girlfriend dies of an overdose the night before his trial, he ends up hitchhiking across the country with a plan to sprinkle her ashes on a beach she loved in British Columbia. Over the course of the journey, he revisits a number of painful childhood memories, scenes of violence and neglect that feel ruinous and real; the question of fate is burbling beneath all these memories. Hynes is asking if it’s possible to stop perpetuating violence if we have been raised with it.
In the wake of the #metoo social media campaign launched to raise awareness about sexual harassment and assault, there has been a call for men to acknowledge how they are complicit in rape culture. Hynes’ novel, We’ll All Be Burnt In Our Beds Some Night, is a nuanced portrayal of a man coming to terms with the abuse he’s endured, and the abuse he’s inflicted on women.