The Custodian of Paradise: A Novel

The Custodian of Paradise: A Novel

by Wayne Johnston

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780393331592
Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
Publication date: 04/17/2008
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 582
Sales rank: 416,571
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.30(d)

About 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.

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.

Reading Group Guide

1. Though she’s from a “quality” family, not “scruff,” Sheilagh lives in rundown places like the boarding house on New York’s Lower East Side, the shack on the Bonavista line, and the Cochrane Street Hotel Why do you think she does this? Talk as well about the class differences that rule St. John’s and how they affect Johnston’s main characters.

2. Why is Sheilagh so abrasive to others, even to the extent of hurting and pushing away those she loves? Does Sheilagh take pride in the persona she has created for herself, and in her local infamy? Or is it truly just a regrettable consequence of being herself?

3. Sheilagh’s Provider writes to her of making a game of devising synonyms for “God,” including “custodian of paradise.” He said to his delegate, “We are all three of us, you and I and Miss Fielding, custodians . . . withdrawn from the world to preserve, to keep inviolate, something that would otherwise be lost.” What are these characters preserving, and are they right or misguided in doing so? In what ways is the Provider playing God?

4. How does the backdrop of the Second World War permeate The Custodian of Paradise? Even at Loreburn, it’s often at the forefront of Sheilagh’s mind. How is Newfoundland affected by the war (e.g. considering its strategic location, and the great losses of its young men)? Is there a comparison to be made between going off to war and going out on the seal hunts?

5. Throughout the novel are references to Sheilagh’s need to be indoors, to her late-night walks, to her need for “sanctuary.” Discuss the importance of sanctuary and isolation in this novel, both physical and mental.

6. Why does the Provider keep his identity and his relationship with Sheilagh’s mother a secret, yet write such cryptic letters, for two decades?

7. From the missives the Provider sends to Sheilagh, to the Forgeries she publishes, to the scrap of paper reading only “Their names are David and Sarah,” correspondence serves as the backbone of communication in this novel. Discuss the ways in which letters and notes guide the main characters. How does writing relate to truth (or fiction) in the novel? To memory?

8. At the time this novel is set, Newfoundland has yet to join Confederation, and has a remoteness from the rest of Canada that is both geographical and psychological. Talk about how Newfoundland is portrayed, and how Fielding and Smallwood feel about their home.

9. Is there any significance to names such as the S.S. Newfoundland (the sealing boat Smallwood travels on) or the Newfoundland Hotel (where Smallwood and Fielding stay in New York)?

10. Johnston has said that one of the main themes explored in this story is “the attempt to overcome the temptation of vengeance.” How do Sheilagh, the Provider, and even Dr. Fielding fare in their efforts?

11. An entirely fictional character, Sheilagh Fielding made her first appearance in Johnston’s The Colony of Unrequited Dreams, his renowned novel based on real-life political figure Joe Smallwood. If you’ve read the earlier novel, discuss the differing views of and narrative roles of Smallwood and Fielding. How has this novel enriched your memory of Colony?

12. As Sheilagh leaves New York for the first time, she writes, “It is as if, when my children were born, my soul followed theirs into the world and now is lost. It seems there is nothing left of me but matter, mortal matter.” How is this attitude reflected in her life afterwards? Does anything change when she meets David?

13. In the final chapter, on her journey back to wartime St. John’s and to society, Sheilagh thinks, “I am returning to a war that I have never really left,” and even calls her Provider’s apartment in New York a “book-lined trench.” In what ways do Sheilagh and others view life as a battle to be fought, or as a war to be survived?

Foreword

1. Though she’s from a “quality” family, not “scruff,” Sheilagh lives in rundown places like the boarding house on New York’s Lower East Side, the shack on the Bonavista line, and the Cochrane Street Hotel Why do you think she does this? Talk as well about the class differences that rule St. John’s and how they affect Johnston’s main characters.

2. Why is Sheilagh so abrasive to others, even to the extent of hurting and pushing away those she loves? Does Sheilagh take pride in the persona she has created for herself, and in her local infamy? Or is it truly just a regrettable consequence of being herself?

3. Sheilagh’s Provider writes to her of making a game of devising synonyms for “God,” including “custodian of paradise.” He said to his delegate, “We are all three of us, you and I and Miss Fielding, custodians . . . withdrawn from the world to preserve, to keep inviolate, something that would otherwise be lost.” What are these characters preserving, and are they right or misguided in doing so? In what ways is the Provider playing God?

4. How does the backdrop of the Second World War permeate The Custodian of Paradise? Even at Loreburn, it’s often at the forefront of Sheilagh’s mind. How is Newfoundland affected by the war (e.g. considering its strategic location, and the great losses of its young men)? Is there a comparison to be made between going off to war and going out on the seal hunts?

5. Throughout the novel are references to Sheilagh’s need to be indoors, to her late-night walks, to her need for “sanctuary.” Discuss theimportance of sanctuary and isolation in this novel, both physical and mental.

6. Why does the Provider keep his identity and his relationship with Sheilagh’s mother a secret, yet write such cryptic letters, for two decades?

7. From the missives the Provider sends to Sheilagh, to the Forgeries she publishes, to the scrap of paper reading only “Their names are David and Sarah,” correspondence serves as the backbone of communication in this novel. Discuss the ways in which letters and notes guide the main characters. How does writing relate to truth (or fiction) in the novel? To memory?

8. At the time this novel is set, Newfoundland has yet to join Confederation, and has a remoteness from the rest of Canada that is both geographical and psychological. Talk about how Newfoundland is portrayed, and how Fielding and Smallwood feel about their home.

9. Is there any significance to names such as the S.S. Newfoundland (the sealing boat Smallwood travels on) or the Newfoundland Hotel (where Smallwood and Fielding stay in New York)?

10. Johnston has said that one of the main themes explored in this story is “the attempt to overcome the temptation of vengeance.” How do Sheilagh, the Provider, and even Dr. Fielding fare in their efforts?

11. An entirely fictional character, Sheilagh Fielding made her first appearance in Johnston’s The Colony of Unrequited Dreams, his renowned novel based on real-life political figure Joe Smallwood. If you’ve read the earlier novel, discuss the differing views of and narrative roles of Smallwood and Fielding. How has this novel enriched your memory of Colony?

12. As Sheilagh leaves New York for the first time, she writes, “It is as if, when my children were born, my soul followed theirs into the world and now is lost. It seems there is nothing left of me but matter, mortal matter.” How is this attitude reflected in her life afterwards? Does anything change when she meets David?

13. In the final chapter, on her journey back to wartime St. John’s and to society, Sheilagh thinks, “I am returning to a war that I have never really left,” and even calls her Provider’s apartment in New York a “book-lined trench.” In what ways do Sheilagh and others view life as a battle to be fought, or as a war to be survived?

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The Custodian of Paradise 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 5 reviews.
brenzi on LibraryThing 21 hours ago
This is the story of Sheilagh Fielding, who, during the last months of WWII, lives on the desserted island of Loreburn, off the coast of New Foundland. Fielding was first introduced by Johnston in "The Colony of Unrequited Dreams." In this story, she retells some of the main themes from the previous story from her point of view and uncovers the identity of her father. Although Fielding's wit and depth of character comes through again, this is not the powerhouse that "Colony" is. The ending is a real disappointment but the telling of her life in the tuberculosis sanitarium, time in New York City and life in the section shack where she survived a snowstorm are excellent. There is very little about her relationship with Joey Smallwood, which dominated the first book. That was hard to swallow. Also, the continued storyline regarding her children was not believable at all. The lengthy section about her "provider" dragged out and didn't make much sense, but Johnston's writing style came through throughout and made the book enjoyable.
ruthseeley on LibraryThing 22 hours ago
Johnston is a master storyteller, and The Custodian of Paradise is no exception. This novel focuses on Sheilagh Fielding's odd life (readers of The Colony of Unrequited Dreams will remember her from that novel). Long, but worthwhile. This novel may be challenging for young readers - it may be difficult for them to believe how damaging something as commonplace as divorce was a century ago, how scandalous it was for a woman to smoke and drink, how an illegitimate birth could ruin not only her life but also her family's, how much secrecy lay at the heart of the families who made up 'the quality.' It is, therefore, an important book not only for its literary value but also for its contribution to social history.
Daciafelix on LibraryThing 3 months ago
A fine read, especially if you've read and loved Colony of Unrequited Dreams, but not entirely satisfying. Colony is Johnston at his best, and I have very warm memories of devouring that book over a quiet vacation a few years ago. Custodian has many of the same positive qualities - the Newfoundland and New York setting, excellent prose, the delightful wit and humor and especially the personality of Shielagh Fielding. But like The Navigator of New York, it suffers a bit from improbable plot elements (something along the lines of a Victorian sensation novel), a bit of meandering when it shouldn't and an ending that is too abrupt and slightly inappropriate. Improbable plot elements don't necessarily put me off, but as in Navigator, I thought certain bits went a bit too far (fallen nuns and priests, intricate and secretive pursuit my mysterious characters, etc.). And I really didn't know what to make of the ending, which was abrupt and not the sort of observation I would have expected from the likes of Shielagh. Colony had some historical events to keep it in line and it had a better structured narrative. That said, Custodian is well worth the time and there is much pleasure in reading it. As with all of Johnson's novels there is great humor, something to choke you up and a fine sense of adventure. I'd start with Colony, savour that for a while, then pick up Custodian. And don't forget Navigator - an imperfect work, but still a very fine read.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Glorious.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I had my ups and downs about this book. Sometimes it seemed to drag a bit. I did enjoy the book though. She is a very interesting and she seems to me that she goes out of her way to make others feel unfriendly and unkind towards her. Her personality is agressive at times as though she wants someone to like/ love her in spite of herself. I can understand how she got this way though. She has a hard time even loving herself.