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The Town That Forgot How to Breathe    by Kenneth J. Harvey order for
Town That Forgot How to Breathe
by Kenneth J. Harvey
Order:  USA  Can
St. Martin's, 2005 (2003)
Hardcover, Paperback

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* * *   Reviewed by Martina Bexte

Joseph Blackwood, a Fisheries Officer working out of St. John's, Newfoundland, has family ties to the small coastal community of Bareneed. Joseph is still working through the fall-out from his recent divorce and feels it's time for him and his estranged ten-year-old daughter Robin to get re-acquainted. He decides that Bareneed is the perfect place to do so as well as an opportunity to rediscover Blackwood family history. But from the moment Joe and Robin arrive, they realize that all is not right in a quaint seaside town that had seen better days before all the fish disappeared and the government shut down the local fish plant.

The first person they meet is the elderly spinster, Eileen Laracy, who's come to their rental cottage to pick lilacs and share her views on fairies and how it is that only the young see the 'fish that fly'. Next door to them is Claudia, a reclusive artist whose husband and daughter Jessica were recently drowned and whose bodies have yet to be recovered. When Robin begins having visions and conversations with Jessica, Joseph's delight over the picturesque community begins to sour and he decides it's time to leave. But Robin's otherworldly experiences increase and then she too is afflicted by the same mysterious ailment that has already felled some of the townsfolk. They are unable to draw breath and within a short time they die, leaving experts baffled.

Even more shocking, bodies begin washing ashore, all of them strangely intact, many having been lost at sea for decades or even hundreds of years, and all of them related to Bareneed families. As the local hospital begins filling up and people continue dying, the army moves in, certain they are dealing with some sort of epidemic. The town is quarantined and Joseph and Robin are unable to leave. But by this time Joseph has come to doubt his own sanity as he suffers from delusions and visions of violent longings, death and murder. Now it's a race against time for the authorities and the locals to figure out why all this is happening and stop it before an even greater disaster befalls them.

I can't heap enough praise on The Town That Forgot How to Breathe; it's moody, evocative, sad and often creepy. It's filled with rich characters who act out a thought-provoking study of what could happen when the people of a community lose sight of what is good about themselves and their own identity.

Harvey, himself a native of Newfoundland, employs rich and descriptive prose and a singular voice to gracefully transport the reader into the story's very disturbing heart. I don't often like characters who speak in dialect, but again, Harvey captures the region's language so accurately, it does not in any way disrupt or distract from the smooth flow of the story. In fact, it enhances it, particularly in the many scenes where Miss Laracy imparts her wise and calming beliefs of why her beloved town is being besieged by such strange and shocking events. If you read one book this year, make it The Town That Forgot How to Breathe - it's a story that will stay with you for a very long time.

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