IN THE 1980s, sections of Montreal resembled California more than Paris: clinics featuring alternative medicine, primal therapy, and freak diets catered to the fears of aging boomers obsessed with physical and spiritual well-being. This is the Montreal of Valmai Howe's second novel, The Loneliness of Angels (NuAge Editions, 268 pages, $13.95 paper).
A magazine assignment lands 38-year-old Bianca Wolfe, a freelance joumalist, at "The New Morning Centre," a clinic run by a cryptic, charismatic Czech who calls himself Petrarch. The Centre, frequented by a motley band of employees and patients, specializes in cleaning out the digestive system. In the interests of a story, Bianca undergoes "colonic irrigation," and embarks on a diet of uncooked foods and tonics. Her body - reflecting her initial skepticism - reacts badly to this sudden change in habits (a "detox"), only to emerge cleansed and invigorated. Likewise, Bianca's spiritual recovery involves ridding herself of unresolved anger and pain. In the course of her journey, she adopts a sick dog, and befriends Jane, a brave woman with cancer, and Mick, a gay man who is HIV positive. Experience of the suffering of others, as well as a few health scares, serves to shake loose Bianca's pent-up anger (an unfaithful lover, memories of her unresponsive parents), and she forms a non-traditional - but valuable - family with Mick.
The story is engaging, but it's marred by inelegant language, repetition, and conventional phrasing. Some of these incongruities may be attributable to Howe's problems with dialogue and seeming unfamiliarity with certain aspects of her subject matter; but I also suspect poor editing.
Howe is at her best when she stays close to her topic. As in her previous novel, The Dreams of Zoo Animals, elements of the non-human world are not just props for the goings-on of people. When Bianca rescues the condemned dog from the SPCA, and we follow its recovery under her care, Howe's writing is crisp and devoid of sentiment; and it positively resonates when it becomes evident that Bianca's health - indeed, everyone's well-being - is contingent on the care extended to others. In fact, this is an immensely satisfying conclusion to a thought-provoking book: only through healing others -on their terms - can we hope to be healed ourselves.