The Custodian of Paradise

The Custodian of Paradise

by Wayne Johnston

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A Book-of-the-Month Club "Best Novel of 2007."
In the waning days of World War II, Sheilagh Fielding makes her way to a deserted island off the coast of Newfoundland. But she soon comes to suspect another presence: that of a man known only as her Provider, who has shadowed her for twenty years.Against the backdrop of Newfoundland's history and landscape,


A Book-of-the-Month Club "Best Novel of 2007."
In the waning days of World War II, Sheilagh Fielding makes her way to a deserted island off the coast of Newfoundland. But she soon comes to suspect another presence: that of a man known only as her Provider, who has shadowed her for twenty years.Against the backdrop of Newfoundland's history and landscape, Fielding is a compelling figure. Taller than most men and striking in spite of her crippled leg, she is both eloquent and subversively funny. Her newspaper columns exposing the foibles and hypocrisies of her native city, St. John's, have made many powerful enemies for her, chief among them the man who fathered her children—twins—when she was fourteen. Only her Provider, however, knows all of Fielding's secrets. Reading group guide included.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Sheilagh Fielding—a striking, unconventional, six-foot-three Newfoundland woman with a limp—returns from prolific Johnston's The Colony of Unrequited Dreamsfor this highly atmospheric sequel. Near the end of WWII, Fielding (as she is known), a notorious St. John's columnist, holes up on the nearby deserted island of Loreburn after her mother dies and leaves her a small inheritance. There, Fielding senses the presence of her mysterious "Provider," who has shadowed her all her life and whom she has never met face-to-face. As Fielding tells her story—abandoned by her mother at six; raised by a father who insinuates she's not his—Fielding's Provider draws closer to her solitary retreat. But Fielding has long kept another secret: she gave birth to twins at the age of 15, who were raised as her half-siblings by her mother in New York City. Johnston's descriptive prose can be exhilarating, from the windswept island to a dingy Manhattan, and he has a sure hand with historical nuggets. There's little tension over the 500-plus pages, and the denouement (her father's identity; her children's fate) is overblown. But Fielding is a fascinating character: she courts her own estrangement as much as she is tormented by it. (Apr.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Library Journal

Award-winning Canadian author Johnston's seventh novel, which builds on the story he began in The Colony of Unrequited Dreams, opens against the backdrop of World War II, when a gifted woman of great wit and inner strength seeks refuge on a deserted island off the coast of Newfoundland. An only child haunted since age six by her mother's abandonment, Sheilagh Fielding was raised in the city of St. John's by her physician father, a man still devastated by his wife's departure and tormented by the suspicion that Sheilagh is not his offspring. Further anguish occurs when, at age 16, Sheilagh becomes pregnant and is sent to stay with her estranged mother, now remarried and living in New York City. Eventually, Sheilagh returns to St. John's and lives an eccentric life that includes writing a satiric newspaper column and drinking heavily. When a mysterious man calling himself her "Provider" claims to know both her and her mother's secrets, Sheilagh slowly learns the truth. With humor and pathos, Johnston unravels the story in fascinating layers and a compelling tone, revealing how mistakes, betrayal, and revenge can plague people's entire lives. Recommended for all library fiction collections.
—Maureen Neville

Product Details

Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
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5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 1.18(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

A clause in my mother’s will tersely stipulated: “I leave to Sheilagh Fielding, the only child of my first marriage, the sum of three thousand dollars.” It was because of her money that I was able to come to the island of Loreburn. I had gone for days to a place called the Registry, which was overseen by a small, middle-aged man known as the Vital Statistician. V.S.

Each time I saw a zero in the population column in one of the census ledgers, I asked him how I might get more information about it. I told him I was doing research for a book, an explanation that he at first accepted. It turned out that there were islands listed as unoccupied that in fact were inhabited by some lighthouse keeper and his family. Why, in the opinion of the census takers, these people did not count, V.S. didn’t know. He said that perhaps, on these islands, the isolation was such that no lighthouse keeper could endure it long enough to be said to live there.

I fretted over the reliability of V.S.’s information. It would mean the end of my venture if I wound up by mistake on some island that was occupied. After I had paid to get there from St. John’s and back, there would be almost no money left. And word of my curious behaviour would get round and I might be prevented from trying again.

I told V.S. that by “deserted” I meant an island on which there had once been a settlement but whose population was now zero, not one that had never been settled. “I know the difference,” he said.
An island on which it was at least hypothetically possible to live. There had to be one more-or-less intact house and a beach where one could land or moor a boat.

What a nightmare it was trying to navigate that census. It seemed that people lurked like submerged rocks under all those zeros. How tired of the sight of V.S. I had become. And he of the sight of me. “I can’t be spending all my time on this obsession of yours,” he said at last.

Many times I went to V.S. thinking I had found my island, only to have him declare it “seasonally occupied” or tell me that its population was “uncertain.” Uncertain. I never bothered asking for an explanation. Each time, I tried to hide my disappointment. “I see, yes,” I’d say, nodding as if my book had just moved one increment closer to completion.

“There’s a war on, you know,” he said to me one day. Yes, I felt like saying, and what contribution to its outcome do you imagine you and your registry would be making if not for my intrusions on your time? Though unaccustomed to holding back, to needing anything from another person so badly that I could stand to keep my opinion of them to myself, I said nothing.

I decided that my island had to be along the south coast, where there would be the least ice in the winter and spring, where whomever I depended on for supplies could reach me all year long.
Late one summer afternoon I found it. Loreburn. Population: zero. The last resident had left in 1925. It was used as a summer fishing station until 1935. Abandoned since. No lighthouse. No “uncertainties,” it seemed, after I consulted with V.S.

I did not conceal my excitement from him. “It’s perfect,” I said.

“For what?” he said and looked at me with frank suspicion. I wondered if he had already spoken to someone about me. He knew my reputation. He might even think I was collaborating with the Germans. It seemed at once ridiculous and highly likely.

There were signs everywhere in the city, urging Newfoundlanders to be vigilant, even around people they had known for years. Your neighbours might be “pacifists” hostile to “the effort.” There was no telling what their “sympathies” might be.

How this little man would love to help catch a collaborator. A spy. He looked as though he hoped I was one. Researching remote islands. Deserted islands. That might be used for who knows what. Radio transmissions, perhaps. Claiming to be writing a book, yet never writing down what he told her. This woman who in her column criticized everything, mocked everything, rejected everything. This woman who admitted in her column to frequenting “establishments.”

“Perfect for what?” he said again, louder this time.

“For my book,” I said, surprised to hear my voice quavering. “I’ve decided it will just be about one island. I’ll go there, when the war is over, I mean. Just to see it with my own eyes. Not that I have any idea when it will end. The war, I mean.”

“You’ve been drinking,” he said.

On the doors of the city’s few establishments that admitted women were signs that read: LADIES UNACCOMPANIED BY GENTLEMEN WILL NOT BE ADMITTED. Recently, I had written in my column that I preferred establishments whose signs were on the inside of the door and read: LADIES UNACCOMPANIED BY GENTLEMENT WILL NOT BE ALLOWED TO LEAVE.

I thought of denying his accusation. But here I was in front of him, looking every bit the Sheilagh Fielding he had heard of. He had likely seen me tipping back my head to take a pull of water from my famous flask.

I had been drinking, up to some months ago. But every time I had come here, every time I had sought him out for help, I had not been drinking. Had not smelled of Scotch.

“You are about as likely,” I nevertheless said, “to win a medal for discovering that Sheilagh Fielding is a drinker as you are for discovering that Hitler has a moustache.”

“You’ll have to leave,” he said.

Suddenly my vision blurred with tears for my dead son. I felt myself swaying, tilting forward. I planted my cane at an angle to the floor to keep from falling. I looked at V.S. He seemed terrified of having to go and bring back help, bring back people who would see this giant of a woman passed out on the floor of his registry.

Meet the Author

Wayne Johnston’s previous novel on Newfoundland, The Colony of Unrequited Dreams, garnered extraordinary reviews and praise from Annie Proulx, Andrea Barrett, Howard Norman, and Annie Dillard. A native of Newfoundland, he now lives in Toronto.

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