With World War II in the background, forty-something-year-old Sheilagh Fielding packs her trunks to take up residence on a "deserted" island - population zero, Sheilagh checked - off the coast of Newfoundland. Her solitary goal is to write a novel. She has a tale to tell and an extraordinary tale it is, for it is the story of her tumultuous life.
Ms. Fielding is a unique individual; physically striking and over six feet tall; she is also lame in one leg. She is highly intelligent with a razor sharp wit. Conversing with Sheilagh - or finding yourself on the wrong side of her acerbic pen - Fielding is a "journalist" - is a dangerous proposition and not recommended for the thin-skinned. (She describes herself as "pointlessly at odds with everything".) Seemingly invulnerable, Sheilagh is also very human and just like the rest of us, is seeking her place in the world.
The Custodian of Paradise is a sweeping old-fashioned novel in the finest sense, sliding back and forth between "real-time" and the past with a wealth of interesting and quirky characters. There is much despair in Sheilagh's life and much of it is self-inflicted, yet as we learn, each time "Fielding" is knocked down - and she is knocked down a lot - she brushes herself off, rises and continues to persevere. Her mind - and particularly her wit - serving as both her protective armor and her psychological/emotional weapon of choice.
This may sound depressing or even maudlin, but it's not. Fielding's story is not only poignant, but at times laugh out loud funny, with Shielagh's uncanny ability to turn a phrase, sentence and paragraph - her saving grace and the book's driving force.
Just to add the novel's complexity there is a multi-level/multi-generational mystery concerning Sheilagh's familial connections and her heritage.
The Custodian of Paradise is a pseudo-sequel to the critically acclaimed The Colony of Unrequited Dreams - an historical novel based on the life of Joseph Smallwood, the first Prime Minister of Newfoundland. (Smallwood has a - err - small role here in this book.) And although I would suggest reading that book, it is not necessary to do so before reading this one. Interestingly, although I enjoyed Unrequited, I do not remember the details and will reread it soon. Conversely, this book which did not receive similar glowing reviews as its predecessor, I see sticking with me for quite some time.