"Minister Without Portfolio" by Michael Winter

Henry Hayward's life has come to a dead end.  His girlfriend has left him, his work is uninspiring, and he has nothing to call his own.  When an opportunity comes up to go to Afghanistan as an army-affiliated contractor, he sees it as a chance to get over his heartbreak and jumps at it.  But one day, while on routine patrol, everything changes for Henry.  A roadside attack takes the life of his friend Tender Morris.  When Henry returns home to Newfoundland, he is tormented by the guilt that he is responsible for Tender's death.  

Back at home, Henry takes it upon himself to care for the people and places that were important to Tender.  Henry buys and begins to rebuild Tender's summer home.  And soon, he begins to care for Martha, Tender's pregnant girlfriend.  But what he isn't prepared for is Tender's family history and the trials that small-town life can bring.

Minister Without Portfolio by Michael Winter is an honest and insightful look into love and human nature.  Like a government minister with no specific responsibilities, Henry Hayward has no responsibilities in life until one life-changing moment in Afghanistan.  But in the spirit of the position of minister without portfolio, he can try his hand at anything, which is why he is granted this nickname.  Readers will relate to his search for meaning and responsibility in life and devour his journey bit by bit.

While at first glance it may seem like there isn't much to the story, that is where the incredible and skilled writing comes in.  This book has an effortless and distinct Atlantic Canadian voice that draws you in to the simplicity of Henry's life.

For me personally, the story wasn't enough to keep glued to the book, but the writing was so wonderful that I wanted to keep going.  And the story definitely picked up for me as I went along.  I think what didn't make this book a winner for me was I just couldn't connect with the characters.  But I can understand that other readers will feel much more strongly about this book than I did.

I saw Michael Winter speak at this years Word on the Street in Toronto and he spoke about drawing on real-life experiences for this book including one particularly worrying scene involving an incinerator.  Knowing this makes me even more interested in his writing as I think he used great skill to weave this and other stories of his own into the novel.  I find it particularly interesting that were certain stories he didn't include because he didn't want the novel to become unbelievable!  

Of all the books on the Giller Prize long list this year, this isn't my favourite but it's certainly not one I would shy away from recommending to others.  I think it captures the Atlantic Canadian voice wonderfully  and is a uniquely Canadian novel.


  1. This book is on my radar and is something I want to read. Your review captures how i think i'm going to feel about it. I read one of his previous books and felt the same way.

  2. I had a love hate relationship with this book. I liked some aspects of it, didn't like other aspects of it. I like the writing at times, others I found it hindered the story. I also didn't connect to the characters. You make an excellent point about how it captures the Atlantic Canadian voice, it is a very Canadian novel. Great review.


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