In his new novel, The Town That Forgot How to Breathe, Kenneth J. Harvey deftly blends two very different genres: the readable page-turner and the dark literary novel. The story itself combines capable writing and deadly sea creatures in a narrative so big in scope that what it does first and foremost is capture the imagination.
Harvey’s novel works on the most basic level that a novel should: it’s a good story. The plot revolves around the town of Bareneed on the coast of Newfoundland and, just as the title suggests, the residents of Bareneed have forgotten how to breathe. Joseph Blackwood and his young daughter Robin are visiting the town of Bareneed where the Blackwood family originated and are trying to reconnect their own family after a recent divorce. Soon, they become caught up in the mystery surrounding the town, including the breathing epidemic, the appearance of sea monsters off the coast, the vengeful ghosts on the mainland and the dozens of drowned bodies springing up from the bottom of the sea where they have rested for years.
The residents of Bareneed take center stage as the story is told in bits through different points of view. The eccentric voices of these sometimes cartoonish, sometimes real and flawed characters make up the captivating tone of the unfolding mystery. From Miss Laracy, the toothless crone who sings old mariners’ songs and claims a belief in spirits to Lieutenant Commander French, an army officer brought in to deal with the impending Bareneed calamity, each character brings his or her own unique background and perspective to the town that forgot how to breathe.
There is a creepy, don’t-read-this-book-at-night element to this novel as well, brought in by the ghosts who float into and out of Bareneed with various levels of aggressiveness. “Myyyyyy fawww-ther went to the sea-sea-sea to see what he could see-see-see, and all that he could see-see-see was the bottom of the deep blue sea-sea-sea,” sings the drowned, falsely innocent image of a ghost child who communicates with young Robin Blackwood. The way the drowned girl is depicted with shades of both creeping tragedy and vindictive evil illustrate perfectly the sinister force overcoming the characters of Bareneed.
If it is the varying characters (both alive and dead) who provide the basic heart to Harvey’s novel, it is the sometimes preachy moral tone that can make some passages hard to swallow. The Town That Forgot How to Breathe touches on many themes, from the importance of family and identity to the wholesome values of a simple and earnest life. What it criticizes, in contrast, is the modern world. The evil lurking behind the frightening occurrences at Bareneed begins to resemble sea monsters less and less, and the enemy of electricity, convenience and distance more and more. There is a point where the novel takes a turn from a lip-biting mystery to a commentary on our fast-paced society, and it is that point that both ties the story together and provides it with an almost-disappointing center.
Still, The Town That Forgot How to Breathe grips the imagination, in a way that pushes literary conventions to the back of the mind. It is no wonder that Harvey’s writing style has been compared to both Stephen King and Annie Proulx. The details of the novel glide along, building a story that‘s at least more digestible than the brackish water off the Newfoundland coast. And as the details build, so does the suspense. It is those aspects of the story that are more important in the end than metaphor or carefully constructed plot points.