Barometer Rising by Hugh MacLennan: Review

barometerA week late and a dollar short. I wanted to have finished Barometer Rising by Hugh MacLennan before the anniversary of the Halifax Explosion but that didn’t happen so I better just get over it.

Barometer Rising is a fictional story set during actual events. Neil Macrae sneaks home to Halifax to settle some scores but since he’s Canadian he doesn’t use elaborate schemes or big guns to achieve this. No, he keeps avoiding people while looking for the One Guy who can clear his name. Mostly he’s avoiding his douchey uncle Geoffrey Wain, who has a lot to lose if Neil shows his face in these parts.

Since this is the middle of World War I, there is a lot happening in Halifax, including the building of ships. Neil’s long lost lady love and daughter of his Unclenemy, Penny, is the designer of a Super Ship (yes, that makes them cousins). Penny spends a lot of time looking pensively out of windows and thinking about Neil, who she thinks is dead. She has secrets. They all have secrets, but none of that is going to matter in a couple of days when the Imo and the Mont Blanc collide in the middle of Halifax Harbour.

First of all, I loved Penny. She’s very Dagny Taggart. She’s not just sitting around wringing tears out of her handkerchiefs; she’s building boats. Mind you, she keeps telling people that her Super Ship was all Neil’s idea (barf) but she’s the brains building it. I don’t know how she keeps her eyes from rolling out of her head every time some dude is all, “Omg, you’re a girl! How can you think with those boobs?! Go home and make me a sandwich.” I was meh about Neil; he’s okay. I thought Drunk Doctor Angus Murray much more interesting.

The plot plods along with people thinking about their secrets and trying to get at other people’s secrets until about a two-thirds of the way through the book when the explosion occurs. Nothing like death and destruction to get people together.

There is some heavy handed patriotism near the end, which is forgivable since MacLennan published it in 1941. I think he felt it was necessary considering what we were facing at the time. Barometer Rising is early CanLit and doesn’t have the legacy of “everyone must suffer or die” behind it and considering the events in the novel it has a surprisingly optimistic ending.

The plots a little slow at first but I really liked Barometer Rising and would recommend it to anyone who enjoys historical fiction. Not bad for a first novel.





  1. I've not read any Hugh MacLennan yet. I thought I'd start with The Watch That Ends the Night, but now with Two Solitudes up for Canada Reads, I'm not sure what I'll do. Had I a Halifax connection, I'm sure the decision would be even more difficult. Of those 3, which have you read and if all of them, which was your favourite?

  2. I've not read any MacLennan either, but I think with my NS connection I will start with Barometer Rising. It sounds a little weak but I'm fascinated with the Explosion, which most people in Canada have forgotten about.

  3. I read this book a few years ago and really liked it. I am glad you liked it, too!

  4. Hmm, this sounds interesting, and I would like to read a historial fictional account on the Halifax explosion, so this may be worth investigating. Thanks for the review.


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