In the annals of plucky female protagonists, Crow Fortune is certainly the most profane. The heroine of Amy Spurway’s quirky debut novel, simply entitled Crow, is a trash-talking, hard-drinking train wreck of a woman who has gone home to die after being diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. Without much regret, she abandons her life in Toronto — a mediocre marketing career, an overpriced condo, and a fiancé whom she catches giving a blow job to his boss — and moves back into her mother’s scruffy trailer, on a scraggly lot on the wrong side of the tracks on Cape Breton Island. After twenty years away, Crow decides to use the time she has left to uncover the truth about her father, who went missing before she was born, and to write a memoir about the long line of lunatics and criminals who make up her family and friends.
What follows is a kamikaze trip down memory lane as Crow, between technicolour hallucinations and copious vomiting, revisits the highs and lows of her roots. The cast of characters is like something out of Trailer Park Boys or a David Adams Richards novel: a basket of lovable and not-so-lovable deplorables. There’s Scruffy Effie Fortune, Crow’s crusty but caring mama, a gin-guzzling hoarder with an underbite, who has toiled for thirty-five years as a chambermaid. There’s Aunt Peggy, Effie’s sister and lazy pogey-scamming “old bulldozer,” who loves to gossip. There’s Crow’s neurologist, Parvati Divyaratna, fondly known as Choco‑Doc. Willy Gimp, Crow’s former high school friend with benefits, has cerebral palsy and a successful career as a drug dealer. Crow’s old friend Char is a red-headed, dreadlocked maniac with an off-kilter eye and huge boobs from which dangle a brown-skinned baby fathered by a Congolese diamond smuggler. And Constable Duke the Puke Clarke is the reason Crow had to leave Cape Breton all those years ago, following an unfortunate (though that is too polite a word) drunken sexual encounter. Duke the Puke is now married to Becky Chickenshit, who, Crow explains, “comes from a long line of arseholes.” Plus, there’s Hottie McMonk Pants, a handsome foul-mouthed Buddhist monk who harbours an important secret. The list goes on.
Then there’s the prose, which would give the screenwriter Armando Iannucci (Veep, The Thick of It, The Death of Stalin) pause. It runs the gamut from colourful Down East vernacular (“not enough fat on her to grease a skillet” and fog as “thick as . . . creamed seafood chowder”) to the truly profane: “This sucks. I feel like a bag of smashed assholes” and “Fuck you, you psycho cunt face.” In short, dialogue like “Shut up, before I puck you in the tits,” combined with Spurway’s overall powers of description, is eye-popping.
This darkly funny novel’s language is outrageous and irreverent. It spits and crackles like a barn on fire. Crow wishes she could “feng shui the fuck out of this grubby little shack” — her mother’s trailer. She describes the north side of the island, where she lives, as “the amalgamation of a couple of OxyContin-ridden, call-centre-infested, coal-stripped craters that erupted in the armpit of the Island’s industrial end.” Her cancer treatment is “a fun-filled day of head cages, foot-long needles, and robo-surgeons.” She even describes herself as “looking like something Picasso threw up,” and her evil aunt Sarah Spenser’s plastic face as “pumped full of baby seal eyelash stem-cell extract.”
Of course, we know that under Crow’s prickly outer shell of sarcasm and profanity beats the heart of a damaged and frightened bird. Language is her defence against the shitty hand she has been dealt. But her verbal gymnastics yield small comfort, and in an era when incivility is rising faster than the proverbial sea levels, we can be thankful for one small mercy: at least Crow Fortune doesn’t tweet, not exactly anyway.
One day she walks down to the wharf and sees an actual crow, a bird on a wire clicking and cawing at her. She lights a joint and observes, “They’re not just noisy, beady-eyed scavengers with a penchant for anything shiny. . . . They learn the tweety dialects of other birds so that they know what they’re saying to each other, and they mimic those sounds just to fuck with the neighbours sometimes.” In other words, her own tweety bravado is an act. Her search for her roots and redemption, however, is real, and its pace is breakneck and helter-skelter.
Each page of this remarkable writerly achievement has some crazy plot twist or disaster. There’s something for everyone: adultery, abortion, domestic abuse, betrayal, madness, tragedy, magic, comedy, compassion, faith, hope, charity, and even extrasensory perception. Readers will not be bored with material that Spurway, a Cape Breton native who now lives in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, likely couldn’t get away with in her past day job as a communications consultant. Spurway’s writing has the deftness of someone juggling hot coals without getting burned.
Crow is looking for answers — answers that begin to reveal themselves after she encounters the ruggedly good-looking Hottie McMonk Pants liberating supermarket lobsters by throwing them into the ocean from the end of the wharf. When one of the crustaceans, “not appreciative of going from the balmy tank at the grocery store to the cold as a witch’s tit Bras d’Or,” pinches the aforementioned Buddhist monk’s hand, he exclaims, “You crusty little cocksucker!” Crow, encouraged by Hottie’s apparent grasp on reality, asks for guidance. He points to the ocean and says, in what comes close to the novel’s central theme, “Shit and garbage and pollution flow in, and nothing is refused or denied. The ocean takes it in, and does its best to integrate and purify whatever comes. I offer that to you as a contemplation.”
Despite Hottie’s words of wisdom, things get a lot worse before they get better. Effie is killed in a car accident; Crow finds herself pregnant after a one-night stand with her ex Willy Gimp; a mining company threatens to evict her from her rundown trailer; and her three brain tumours, dubbed Parry Homunculus, Ziggy Stardust, and Fuzzy Wuzzy, are slowly but surely taking over. All the while, she’s no closer to finding out what happened to her father. This central mystery — the plot, such as it is — is secondary to the action that careens from one crisis to another. Somehow it’s a tangled tale that deftly unsnarls itself in ways that belie the sarcasm, the satire, and the cynicism of a dying woman’s despair, without ever straying over the line into sentimentality. In the end, all the fraying strands of Crow’s chaotic life come together in a coherent whole, which is all she really wanted. Not everyone lives happily ever after. Like other feisty and flawed female protagonists — Emma, Maggie, and Anna come to mind — Crow Fortune’s candle burns brightly and briefly. But in the end, she does find redemption and true love and the roots she sought — in more ways than one.