1762 Three on a beach
by Rhonda Waterfall
Guelph ON: Gordon Hill Press, 2022
$22.00 / 9781774220672
Reviewed by Steven Brown
Sombrio, by Rhonda Waterfall, is a dark tale of estrangement, paranoia, delusion and self-loathing, set to the tune of some kind of woodsy mystic opera, complete with the ethereal sound of singing off in the dark forest. The mystery as to why these three particular men leave civilization behind to “get back to the land,” meaning residing under one roof in a ramshackle dwelling on the wild west coast of southern Vancouver Island, and in December of all times, is a mystery that is never explained beyond their seeming belief the world is ending in the new year. But what on earth are they doing together?
Thomas DeWolf, Roy Kruk, Charles Tindal. Three hard cases. They’re certainly not likeable. Toxic masculinity is everywhere in these woods. Thomas is an alcoholic, drug addict, and “ex-bank robber,” if it is to be believed. Despite these failings his wife (they’re not actually married, he’s quick to point out) and daughter continue to love him although he’s estranged from his daughter who appears to be a drug addict herself. He blames himself for her “brokenness.” He feels he’s a failure as a father, which can only be true. From the city his wife brings groceries for the men as well as enables her husband’s drug addiction by bringing him what he craves.
Roy Kruk, a painter who dropped out of Emily Carr School of Art is an “apprentice” to the painter who is the third member of the trio. It doesn’t appear to be that long ago that they met in a café. Roy, having in his own words “abandoned” a wife and young son, has a girlfriend named Fern who appears from time to time. Roy had a rough childhood, father a suicide and mother alcoholic and abusive, and, like Thomas, he was sexually abused. In both cases the perpetrator was male. Roy is a seething mass of resentment, grievance, and bad judgement, and again, like Thomas, his basic view of life is hatred for just about everyone and everything. He’s also, evidently, losing his mind and not in a nice way.
At eighty, Charles Tindal is significantly older than the other two men. He apparently has at least one painting hanging in the National Gallery in Ottawa. While Thomas gets loaded and digs a hole he can hide in, and Roy busies himself building a lookout-cum-tree fort, four square feet he christens “home” and “my watchtower,” Charles in the shack works away on a large canvas he has named The Twentieth Century that he considers his masterpiece. Charles has three daughters by different women, and the half-sisters apparently until recently have been ignorant of each other’s existence. They’re the source of that ghostly forest choir singing twentieth century pop tunes. According to Charles, his daughters’ strongest emotion towards their father is hatred and he’s sure they’re out to kill him. Along with his general conceitedness he has grandiose ideas about the significance of the painting he’s working on. Thinking of Fern, Charles is confident he’ll “have my way with her.” Charles is a successful artist in spite of himself and not an especially nice old man.
What a crew. What good can come of all this? Thomas, who has known Charles for years, views him as a friend. Roy, who has not known Thomas very long, views him as a friend. As with many other things Roy is mistaken in this. Thomas, in spite of his professed desire to lead a normal, clean life, is thinking of one last robbery. He asks Roy to be his partner in crime. Roy agrees. Not much later the robbery idea seems to have been sidelined.
What seems like the worst storm in history provides denouement in Sombrio. Horror, madness, and suicide stalk these woods as well as elements of the absurd. Sometimes things seem a little over the top. It’s an intense novel in fifty-five short chapters. Thomas gets twenty chapters, as does Ray, while eighty-year-old Charles gets fifteen. The movement generally is linear. The chapters go into each man’s not particularly splendid or ennobling history. There’s no role models here. Thomas and Roy are even more messed up than Charles, which might be why they have more chapters devoted to them. And there’s more to say. On the whole Sombrio is about male transgression, inadequacy, and victimhood, and the effects of these failings on people close to the three beach dwellers.
About the location of this escape from civilization. Sombrio Beach is a real place. In 1790 Spanish explorer Manuel Quimper named the small river that flows into the ocean at this location north of Victoria as “Sombrio,” meaning dark or shady and, it could be, gloomy. This reviewer had no idea of the real beach until he looked it up. It’s a slightly exotic word — Sombrio. There’s something evocative about it, memorable. The Spanish pronunciation of the word has long since been dropped, as in Som-bree-o. Brio as in brio. It’s just Sombrio.
For several decades ending in the late 1990s, Sombrio Beach actually was the site of a squatters’ colony of a dozen or so driftwood shacks. That had to be looked into too. The city trio has moved into one that stills stands. In reality the squatters were ultimately forced to leave the beach and the shacks were knocked down and burned to make way for a portion of San Juan Provincial Park. The beach, off Highway 14 between Victoria and Port Renfrew, is now a popular overnight camping spot and frequently windy: a premium place for west coast surfing.
Our trio know they will be discovered and asked to leave by park rangers, but that must not matter to them if the world is ending. The reader has the feeling that with all the mental pathologies flying around, their world won’t be ending in quite the way they imagine. The remarkable thing about Sombrio is how Rhonda Waterfall as a female author brings these basically broken and pathetic men to life. That’s not an easy thing to do. These messed up men can get tiresome, but she stays with it. The result isn’t pretty but it is captivating.
The novel is from a fairly new imprint based in Guelph, Ontario. It’s well turned-out in the modern quality paperback style. Everything, the paper quality and design, the look and feel of the book, turns it into an objet in its own right as a book, a thing of beauty in the small but highly competitive market for Canadian fiction. It’s a nice piece of work. It excites the mind before the reading starts.
“Books have ruined my life,” jokes Steven Brown. A professional in the book trade for years, he’s managed to retain a deep and abiding passion for books and first rate literature. He was born in Saskatchewan and grew up in Ontario and British Columbia. Vancouver is home these days. His reviews have appeared in Canadian newspapers, a literary review or two, and he has donated reviews to good causes. He’s written a couple of novels he’d like to see published. Editor’s note: see here for a review by Bill New of a previous book by Rhonda Waterfall, The Strait of Anian (Now or Never Publishing, 2022).
The British Columbia Review
Editor and Publisher: Richard Mackie
Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an on-line book review and journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Barry Gough, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies.
“Only connect.” – E.M. Forster