When a warship explodes in Halifax Harbor, Nova Scotia, in 1917, destroying a swath of the town and killing hundreds, Clare Holmes loses an eye. Her controlling mother, who never wanted Clare to leave the family farm, swoops her up and practically imprisons her there. But Clare’s independence isn’t the only loss, for she fears that her soldier fiancé, Leo, won’t want her anymore, and it’s doubtful that her employer at the glassworks will either. Worst, the post-traumatic stress cripples her so badly she can barely get out of bed.
How Clare deals with her disability, much of which is psychological, makes a compelling tale, and Watt slowly reveals how the young woman gains in perspective, literally and metaphorically. Claire’s job was to check the glass for flaws, and now she’s damaged too. Just as she has to learn to see the world differently, she must look into herself, my favorite part of the novel. Her newfound interest in art brings unexpected possibilities (and extends the metaphor of sight and perspective). When she considers that life might offer more than marrying Leo—if he returns alive—Watt handles the implied feminism with grace and subtlety.
Leo’s a well-drawn character too, but the war scenes seem less credible than those of the home front. Watt brings Halifax to life more vividly, with its fear-mongering, aspirations, and jealousies. A German-born glassblower whom Clare befriends seems too good to be true—he’s the weak link—but Dazzle Patterns succeeds anyway. Readers of historical fiction will likely focus on the Halifax narrative, which feels lived in, and disregard the shortcomings of the war sequences, which don’t. Lovers of literary fiction will have a fine time, regardless.