By Susie Taylor
Breakwater Books
May, 2024 | $22.95

Reviewed by Maggie Burton

Susie Taylor’s Vigil is a set of seventeen interconnected short stories that take place in a fictional, small, Newfoundland town called Bay Mal Verde. Taylor herself is a character in the book, named Susie, who is a queer, come-from-away woman who may finally have the reluctant acceptance of the townspeople, it’s unclear. While this is very much a book about Newfoundland, anyone who has lived in a rural, economically-depressed town since the dawn of the opioid epidemic will recognize the characters. Sex, drugs, power, and fear are the cornerstones of this seductive collection of stories. Taylor has proven herself an astute and fair observer of the rural experience. 

Careful to avoid one-dimensional portrayals of the archetypal small town drug crew-member or customer, Taylor confronts the fear and uncertainty that plagues those who work behind the scenes to keep the peace. Fentanyl-ridden supply threatens to ripple through the town, killing a member of the community. On a trail run, Susie sees the dead body in a clearing. She tells no one, even managing to convince herself that it isn’t real. 

Self-delusion is a blessing and a curse that affects everyone in Bay Mal Verde. Whether it’s Nan pretending not to notice her resident teens getting high or drunk, or the bys not acknowledging that their friend or cousin is queer, not noticing is a vital skill for happy co-existence in any small town. Not sticking out is another. 

Susie regularly goes running, which the locals find strange. It also puts her in danger of seeing something, which either leads to saying something or pretending nothing happened. And the reader learns what happens when people go asking questions in town. Your shed or house could burn down, maybe with you in it. It is normal for people to disappear, as “[t]he woods, the ocean, can take a person and never give them back.” It’s sad, but dying young in an accident, legitimate or staged, is part of the game. Growing up in rural Newfoundland, all of us knew someone who fell off a cliff and either lived or died. We also knew, either through instinct or whispers from Nan, whose houses to avoid knocking on when we were going around with Girl Guide cookies. There’s a beauty in taking care of each other in this way, and accepting each member of our community for who they are, giving everyone space and a modicum of respect. This only really works, however, in a society without opioids. 

When I was a teenager around the bay, in a town just like Bay Mal Verde, at first there was only weed and beer for us to get into. Maybe the occasional moonshine. But when pills started to come around, the game changed and the adults didn’t know how to keep up with it. Once Oxycontin got a generation of teens hooked, and those teens became young adults, it took many people by surprise when their neighbours’ adult children started doing things like breaking into their shed to steal a set of winter tires. Or stealing money from nan’s purse, or having a kid and being unable to care for it. Boundaries were crossed that had never been an option to cross before. No matter what happens, however, you don’t involve the authorities, you deal with it amongst yourselves. You take care of each other. 

Taylor emphasizes that sketchy situations, and people, are not clear-cut. It’s easy, tempting even, to look at a local drug dealer and see a Bad Man and nothing else. But in Bay Mal Verde, as in real life, the same guy is good to his mother, rescues a dog from an abusive owner, and makes sure that people who need care are taken care of. The bys in Vigil are likable antihero types, not unlike Tony Soprano. But at the end of the day, people do get hurt, and lives do get ruined. 

It is obvious that everyone is complicit in the damage done in the town, and that everyone must live with the consequences of their (in)actions. The reader gets an idea of the intergenerational circumstances that created each of the characters, reinforcing that no one is created in a vacuum, and that poverty does not discriminate. An exit from a place like Bay Mal Verde is never clean, either. What money pays for an expensive arts education on the mainland, for example? There is a cost to leaving, a cost to staying. And it’s not easy to turn your back on where you come from.

We become indebted to each other on this island in ways that we are reluctant to accept. Taylor reminds us that we all have a role to play in our communities and in our families, and that we’d be wise to take our responsibilities seriously. Vigil is an insightful read that contributes to a better understanding of who we are as a people here on our deceptively complex little island. 

You can hear Susie read from Vigil on June 20th at Breakwater Books’ summer launch, alongside a roster of exciting authors.

Maggie Burton lives in St. John’s with her four children where she works as a City Councillor, musician, and writer. Her first book of poetry, Chores, was published by Breakwater Books in 2023.