Signe, the protagonist of Sarah Sheard's The Hypnotist
(Doubleday Canada, 244 pages, $29.99 cloth), is a Toronto photographer who is interested in observing andrecording intimate details: a beetle on a mushroom cap, a tattered map lying on the roadside. In her own words, she likes "losing the forest for the trees"-which is exactly what she does when she slides into a romantic-sexual relationship with a seemingly unlikely candidate.
Signe has just gotten her big break: an invitation to participate in a prestigious group show at the Art Gallery of Ontario. As fate would have it, just as she wants to be most engaged with her work and is still recovering from a recent divorce, she is introduced to William.
An established psychiatrist who specializes in treating anorexic women with hypnosis, the small-boned, rodent-mouthed William does not appear, at first glance, to be Signe's "type" at all. In fact, during their first date, she has to try hard "to find something physically appealing about him". Yet, by the end of the evening, she feels she is "not nearly as polished a woman as he [is] a man."
Perhaps his most attractive quality is his insight into her photographs. And since the surest way to an artist is through an appreciation of her art, it isn't a complete surprise that she falls for him. As the relationship develops, however, and William takes charge of Signe's life, it becomes obvious that his "love" for her is nothing more than a desire to conquer and control. At first he is infatuated, drawn by her looks and initial lack of interest. Gradually, he wins her over. But when he sees that she is in love with him, he starts to back away. The more she wants him, the less he wants her.
It is simultaneously irritating and compelling to watch this classic tale unfold. Signe at first accepts William's growing distance. Then she tries desperately to figure out what she's done wrong, going so far as to read William's journals and textbooks, looking for clues to his true self. Eventually, she grows despondent, weighed down by the responsibility for the relationship which William has shifted onto her. Finally, she realizes that she must extricate herself for her own emotional survival.
What lends such power and authenticity to the novel is its fascinating depiction of the subtle, complex entwinement, the unwitting collusion, that occurs when two people become obsessed with each other, addicted not as much to love as to the idea of it. Although William comes off as the more manipulative of the pair, Signe is not innocent. Her compulsion to solve the mystery of William keeps her involved with him far longer than is healthy for her.
Sheard, the author of two other acclaimed novels (Almost Japanese and The Swing Era), is a therapist herself and puts this experience to excellent use in The Hypnotist. She has written a riveting story-one she herself calls "a cautionary tale about this malevolent enchantment we sometimes mistake for love"-laced with startling images. Her evocation of both Signe's passion for photography and her actual photographs is exceptional. Here is just one example: "What she wanted to capture tonight was the little waterfall down in a ravine... Shot in time-lapse, the waterfall would be transformed into poured smoke, into spindles of flax dashed against rock. Water, changing form from liquid to solid to gas."
The ending of the novel demonstrates wonderfully the power of art to reveal and to heal as Signe takes one final photograph of William, "her eyes and heart together" transforming him "into a new piece of truth she could understand".
Eva Tihanyi is a poet who lives in Welland, Ontario.