Hugh Garner

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Claude T. Bissell

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[A] realistic novel that makes use of an accumulation of small, precise detail and concentrates on the plight of the little man is Hugh Garner's Storm Below. It is the account of the last four days of the voyage of a Canadian corvette, part of the escort force of a convoy proceeding from Londonderry to Newfoundland during the early spring of 1943. Although this is a war novel, Mr. Garner does not look outward to the big sensational facts of the conflict…. Rather, Mr. Garner wants to reveal to us the tiny, but intricate world of the corvette. To this end, he gives us an abundance of technical description and, more to the point, a full gallery of human portraits, embracing almost every naval rank and a wide assortment of Canadian types. In order to give movement and depth to what might have been an extended exercise in description, he has, first of all, devised a central situation that reaches out and touches the life of the entire ship. A young ordinary seaman is accidentally killed, and the captain decides to set aside the tradition of the sea and to keep the body on board for burial at St. Johns. The decision is an unfortunate one: ancient superstitions are aroused; the esprit de corps of the crew is endangered; and conflicts and antipathies long latent are brought with naked ugliness into the open. These conflicts and antipathies are not merely personal; they are entangled (here we have the second means of enriching the material) with the racial and political prejudices that are part of the society from which the men have come.

Storm Below, then, has its full quota of human misery and twisted passion. In one sense, the novel properly concludes with the burial of the lad whose death had threatened to turn the final days of the voyage into an ugly nightmare. The funeral service and burial, envisaged by the captain as a last tender gesture from the living to the dead, turns into meaningless protocol carried out in a make-shift manner. And yet Storm Below does not have a depressing effect. The reason for this lies partially in the fact that Mr. Garner from time to time brings out the camaraderie and the warm sense of solidarity that come to men in a group under the stress of a simple, easily recognizable danger. More essentially it lies in Mr. Garner's considerable power to suggest the expansive quality of life. His characters are carefully selected so as to represent types and points of view; yet their uncensored speech, which is not without eloquence and cleansing wit, gives them a significance beyond the general and the representational.

Storm Below strikes me as so far the best Canadian novel based upon war experience. Its defect is primarily one of construction: there are too many points of interest that tend to pull away from the central situation. Still this is a minor blemish in a first novel that has so many shining virtues. (pp. 267-68)

Claude T. Bissell, in University of Toronto Quarterly (reprinted by permission of University of Toronto Press), April, 1950.

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