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Barometer Rising by Hugh MacLennan
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Barometer Rising (1941)

by Hugh MacLennan

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241747,848 (3.66)18
  1. 00
    Curse of the Narrows: The Halifax Explosion 1917 by Laura M. Mac Donald (mysterymax)
    mysterymax: A very readable non-fiction account of the explosion that gives real background to Barometer Rising
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» See also 18 mentions

Showing 1-5 of 7 (next | show all)
This was my second attempt at getting through the book. I hardly got past the 10th page on my first attempt but this time, the first half of the book really captivated me. I wasn't as interested in the second half of the book - the pace moved too quickly compared to the first half and the story was somewhat lost in the Halifax explosion. Overall, a good story but wouldn't ever be a re-read for me. ( )
  janeycanuck | Jul 6, 2013 |
From the very beginning of Barometer Rising, you can tell this is a singular book. The foreword sets the stage when it says that this book "is one of the first ever written to use Halifax, Nova Scotia, as its sole background." Then it blew my mind by saying that there was "as yet no tradition of Canadian literature" at the time Barometer Rising was originally published (1941). CanLit is not even 70 years old at the time this review is being written, and look at all the things we've accomplished! It's amazing.

Amazing also describes this book well. The story takes place from a few days before to a day or so after the Halifax Explosion, which occurred on December 6, 1917. It was a horrific event: a munitions ship collided with a relief vessel and caught fire, but only a few people knew what was really inside, so lots of people were out on the street watching the ship burn when it exploded. It is still one of the largest non-atomic explosions in history, or something like that.

But we are not following the crew of this ill-fated vessel. Instead we focus on Neil MacRae, a disgraced soldier who has returned to Halifax, where his lover (and also his cousin) Penelope Wain still lives. She believes he died in Europe, so she has managed to carry on, holding down a very respectable job designing ships. (Respectable from our perspective, of course; most of the male characters think she really shouldn't be doing "men's work".) What will happen if their paths crossed? How much has Penny changed? Has Neil changed? And of course what impact will the Explosion have when it occurs?

This is quite honestly a brilliant book. As a poet, MacLennan is blessed with a gift for description. He picks the right words and uses all of the senses, making the scene come to life. For example, the foghorns whose sounds permeated the walls of the Wain household. You can almost feel the bellow rattling around in your own bones when you read those lines. His protagonists are animated, with active inner thoughts (particularly those of Angus Murray, a medical officer from Neil's battalion). Of course greater dimension is given to Penny, Neil and Angus, but Geoffrey Wain, Penny's father and Neil's uncle, also has more to him than one might think.

MacLennan's description of the Explosion rates its own paragraph. It is utterly breathtaking, speaking to both the quality of his research and his ability to conjure up the perfect image. Even though what happens in the harbour is a matter of historical record and cannot be changed (this is not an alternate history novel), the dread one feels at the Imo approaching the deadly Mont Blanc is palpable, and the moment the ship goes up is sickening.

This is one of those rare books where I feel even a tiny bit comfortable discussing themes and symbols. The barometer mentioned in the title gave me pause, but I can guess that the fact that it's rising means that the pressure is increasing throughout the story -- the confrontation between the various parties involved in the Neil MacRae affair has to come to a head after the tension of the days leading up to the Explosion, which blows everyone's world apart and changes things radically. There is also a theme of the older generations being supplanted by the new, as illustrated by the character of Alec MacKenzie and the anecdote about Angus Murray returning to his father's farm and finding that much of the land his father had painstakingly cleared the trees from was reverting to new forest.

To conclude this review, I shall leave you with a short passage from the last little bit of the book.

No matter what happened to him in the future he would always be able to tell himself that he had survived worse things in the past. Forsan et haec olim meminisse iuvabit. Only one who had experienced ultimate things could comprehend the greatness of that line.

The line in question is from The Aeneid, and one possible translation is "Perhaps it will be pleasing to remember even this one day." Translator Robert Fagles did not propose this translation (I got it off Wikiquote), but he has been quoted as saying that "[the line] is about loss, about overcoming the worst", a statement that can also be fairly applied to this book. Very moving, beautifully written, Barometer Rising is a must-read for Canadian literature fans and anyone interested in historical fiction. ( )
2 vote rabbitprincess | Feb 22, 2011 |
This is actually my second time reading Barometer Rising. I first read it almost 20 years ago. I enjoyed it then and even more so now.I was surprised that I could still find something in it; that it still had something to teach me. This time, I was able to appreciate the philosophical musings of the characters and Maclennan.

I have kept this quote nearby since my first reading of the novel:
Forsan et haec olim meminisse iuvabit. Which is: Perhaps it will be pleasing to remember even this one day.

20 years ago I wished those words were true but had no experience of them.Today I understand them as a gentle wisdom not to judge and dismiss the content of a particular moment.... ( )
  julie10reads | Feb 19, 2011 |
Though it's considered a classic of Canadian fiction, it is by no means the "Great Canadian novel". See "Two Solitudes" for that. ( )
  brentetzel | Jun 16, 2008 |
): I kept finding myself wanting to see this as a movie, somehow. Something about it, and especially about the character of Peg (?) reminded me of the stream-of-consciousness writing of Virginia Woolf. I'm not smart enough to say why, but the feeling was inescapable. I enjoyed the book, and I enjoyed trying to read between the lines to see what MacLennan was saying about Canada, and whether his observations hold true today. ( )
  Lexicographer | Jan 3, 2008 |
Showing 1-5 of 7 (next | show all)
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» Add other authors

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Hugh MacLennanprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Knaust, JuttaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Knaust, TheodorTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
MacLean, F. WyattNotessecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Macleod, AlistairAfterwordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
McPherson, HugoIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Newfeld, FrankCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Ross, MalcolmEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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He had been walking around Halifax all day, as though by moving through familiar streets he could test whether he belonged here and had at last reached home.
It seems necessary to offer more than a conventional statement about the names of the characters in this book, since it is one of the first ever written to use Halifax, Nova Scotia, for its sole background. (from the foreword)
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0771099916, Mass Market Paperback)

Penelope Wain believes that her lover, Neil Macrae, has been killed while serving overseas under her father. That he died apparently in disgrace does not alter her love for him, even though her father is insistent on his guilt. What neither Penelope or her father knows is that Neil is not dead, but has returned to Halifax to clear his name.

Hugh MacLennan’s first novel is a compelling romance set against the horrors of wartime and the catastrophic Halifax Explosion of December 6, 1917.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:26:49 -0400)

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