Novel of the week

The Colony of Unrequited Dreams

Wayne Johnston <em>Doubleday, 562pp, £15 </em>

ISBN 0385600275

In the British popular imagination Canada is famous for Mounties, mountains and the Anglo-French divide but - Margaret Atwood and Carol Shields aside - it would appear to be something of a literary wilderness. Even in North America, Newfoundland is pretty high up the scale of social satire. The Colony of Unrequited Dreams, then, is a sort of cynic's folklore for Newfoundland.

A fiction woven around a core of fact, this is the story of Joey Smallwood, semi-educated social underdog and the personification of the country he came to lead. As a boy, Smallwood listed the historians and prime ministers of Newfoundland and added his name to the bottom. In the course of his life - and the novel - he fulfils both ambitions, also chancing his hand as a failed emigre, thwarted socialist, frustrated unionist, disillusioned journalist, jingoistic broadcaster and pig farmer.

Johnston's Smallwood is an absurd figure: self-centred and self-important, ruthlessly ambitious and physically wretched. Originally socialist, he turns liberal before calling for the Confederate vote. In government he becomes yet more ludicrous: a pompous dupe conned by former Nazi war criminals into leeching millions from his country.

Johnston offers us a conspicuously uncharismatic hero, and yet this is also a - fictional - love story. At the age of 12, Smallwood encounters Fielding, his fiercest critic and the (largely unconsummated) love of his life. Fielding, unsurprisingly, is an uneasy heroine: an uncompromisingly cynical alcoholic with a wasted leg. But for all Johnston's merciless fault-finding, there is an essential dignity about his characters. Smallwood's endearing honesty, dedication and passion for Newfoundland and Fielding render his follies forgivable; Fielding's pitiful journals, scalding political commentary and idiosyncratic history of Newfoundland make her a fascinating and fully rounded female lead.

In a land where even survival is an achievement, Johnston pays his respects to the human spirit. But it is the visual quality that really makes this novel stand out: Newfoundland looms like a troubled deity. With the lyricism of a lost lover, Johnston presents an awe-inspiringly barren and relentless landscape, most memorably in his depiction of the missing whalers, a group tableau frozen on the ice.

Yet although Johnston cannot be accused of romanticising a pastoral idyll, the idealisation of the railway workers' and fishermen's unquestioning hospitality - which Smallwood imposes upon in the hope of forming unions - is one of the few jarring notes.

Johnston's sense of place relies heavily on a vivid grasp of the past. History - the making of it and the recording of it - is the upholstery of this novel. Intermittent extracts from Fielding's Condensed History of Newfoundland offer an acerbic sense of context, and for all the characters D W Prowse's real history, which is also quoted, is an enduring source of pride, comfort, misery and even death. "It seemed to be that unless I did something that historians thought was worth recording, it would be as if I had never lived," Smallwood maintained.

Johnston's skill in marrying the political and historical with the personal and a spellbinding sense of place is remarkable. Despite the recurrent bleakness of the novel, there is a mesmeric quality to Johnston's prose; he moves with agility from haunting pathos to the searing wit of Fielding's columns to the mundane. "It's not your fault that your so-called country has no culture," Smallwood was taught as a boy. The Colony of Unrequited Dreams locates Newfoundland firmly on the cultural map - the type of book that Joey Smallwood would have longed for. This is the first of Johnston's five novels to be published in the UK; it is about time that he found a wider audience.

Joanna Hunter writes regularly for the "Times"