In 1993, Quoyle--unemployed (again), borderline-obese, devoid of all self-esteem--finds himself a single father when his wife, who never loved him anyway, runs off with another man and then gets into a fatal car crash. With no direction in life and a modest chunk of life insurance money, Quoyle packs up his girls, reunites with his aunt, and heads north from New York to the Quoyle family's ancestral home, the merciless coast of Newfoundland.
This remote, drooping community, where everyone's father, son, or brother seems to have drowned on a tragically unprofitable shipping expedition, where everyone is barely scraping by, family sexual abuse is a shared community history, and the industries that have kept the region alive are gradually dying--here, somehow, for the first time, Quoyle finds himself beginning to live his life. He gets a job writing the Shipping News column for the local paper, and over the course of a year comes to terms with his family's history, his own sorry story, and what he actually wants in life.
The Shipping News made my Gaps list because it won the 1993 Pulitzer. I knew absolutely nothing about it before dipping in (well, except for that the author was also the author of Brokeback Mountain).
At first, I found the book very inaccessible--for the first fifty pages or so, I couldn't get beyond what I thought was a fairly pretentious narrative tone, and I was afraid I was never going to become engaged by the story. But I definitely did--in spite of the stodgy beginning, the book is really beautiful to read, a careful meditation on a life that seems remote to most readers but which was a very real life path, a hypnotic piece of the North American cultural experience. The book makes much use of maritime devices (including a symbolic series of knots to open chapters), which added a certain charm for me--I grew up in New England where this harsh lifestyle was very much romanticized. Furthermore, the book is full of inventive imagery, so if you are a sucker for fresh language you'll have much to enjoy.