Michael Winter returns with his fifth novel, Minister Without Portfolio, a tale of guilt, loss, and renewal. The protagonist is Henry Hayward, and at the novel’s start he is a man adrift, trying to get over a split with his girlfriend, yet feeling unable to do so if he stays in St. John’s. Luckily, a friend finds him a gig doing contracting work for the military in Kabul and off he goes. But, just as Henry’s broken heart is mending, a bomb goes off, literally, and Henry is covered in guilt and the blood of his childhood friend, Tender Morris. Henry feels it’s his fault, because in the heat of the moment he accidentally grabbed Tender’s gun, leaving him unarmed against a suicide bomber.
Henry returns to Newfoundland, crushed, seeking renewal in the aptly titled town of Renews. There he begins to rebuild Tender’s dilapidated home and shortly after begins caring for Tender’s widow Martha, who is pregnant. Henry dedicates himself to Martha, wanting to make things right for her and her unborn child.
While Minister Without Portfolio does a good job of painting an authentic portrait of rural Newfoundland, the book doesn’t have the same verve and energy of Winter’s earlier work. The dialogue doesn’t pop like it did in The Architects Are Here and his protagonist Henry pales in comparison to the too similar Rockwell Kent of The Big Why. Like Kent, Henry is plagued with the thought that he isn’t living his life the way he should be, and he claims he just wants to be good, but he never quite knows how to truly be himself.
The problem is Henry isn’t that interesting, and Winter’s minimal and staccato prose doesn’t help create an evocative portrait. This novel would have been much more powerful if written from the perspective of Martha, the grieving, pregnant widow, rather than Henry’s. Perhaps Winter needs to veer away from the long-suffering, slightly unlikable anti-hero, which has been his go-to protagonist in nearly all his work to date. Sadly, Minister Without Portfolio feels like a bit of a misstep and a rehash. Like its protagonist, it seems to be searching for something yet never quite reaches its full potential.