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Henderson's Spear

by Ronald Wright
408 pages,
ISBN: 0676973892


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Revelations through Documents and Letters
by Nathan Whitlock

Early on in Henderson's Spear, Ronald Wright's second novel, the character of a professor condemns what he sees as contemporary literature's woeful lack of ambition and unhealthy infatuation with the quotidian. "No great and enduring volume can ever be written on the flea," he intones, "That's what I tell my creative writing class churning out watered-down Updike." Clearly, Wright has conscripted this character to communicate his own feelings. In opposition to authors who choose to grapple with nothing beyond themselves, the professor/Wright posits the example of Herman Melville, a writer who "wanted all of culture and nature. All the piled centuries." Melville is invoked throughout this expansive tale of lost fathers and daughters, but Wright has a difficult time measuring up to Melville's example.

Henderson's Spear takes the form of an astonishingly lengthy letter written by Olivia, a middle-aged documentary filmmaker, to the illegitimate daughter she gave up for adoption at birth and whom Olivia has never seen or spoken to. Olivia, born and bred in England but now living in British Columbia, writes from inside a Tahitian jail, where she is being held as a possible accomplice in a murder. Olivia has travelled here seeking her father, a British pilot who disappeared almost forty years earlier, during a Korean War mission.

Olivia's letter has two parts. One is her account of the events, leading back to her childhood, which brought her to her present incarceration. The other is the journals of Francis Henderson, an naval officer for the British Empire under Queen Victoria who was, as Wright notes at the end of the book, a real-life figure and a cousin of Wright's ¨ some of the material is drawn from Henderson's actual journals. The most significant episode is the three-year global circumnaviation Henderson made with Queen Victoria's grandsons, Prince George, later King George III, and the elder Prince Edward, whose premature death was clouded in scandal and intrigue. The connections between Olivia and Henderson form the novel's central mystery. Olivia types out these journals for her daughter; the chapters alternate between the voice of Olivia and that of Henderson.

Henderson's Spear is certainly the furthest thing from "watered-down Updike," but in attempting to fill the broadest canvas possible, Wright sacrifices depth and psychological insight. Given the book's themes of documents and disclosure, Wright could have done a lot more with the notion that Olivia's letter is itself a document, and therefore untrustworthy. Documents and letters precipitate most of the action in the novel. Ultimately, the book's mysteries are solved through the revelations of letters, sometimes with timing so fortunate as to beggar belief. It's a bit late in the day for a serious novelist to ask of his readers to accept that the truth of the past can be thrown open by a well-kept journal.

It is difficult to get a grasp on the central characters of Olivia and Henderson. In their writing, Olivia and Henderson display very little of the sort of idiosyncrasy that would reveal their true characters. Olivia's letter and Henderson's journal often lapse into straight narration. Wright keeps their respective psychologies clear and uncomplicated so as not to obscure the tales they relate. They are both the sort of innocent narrators, passive and highly observant, familiar from numerous 19th century novels. That Olivia is a documentary filmmaker is a detail most modern authors would find, for better or worse, too pregnant with potential significance and symbolism to resist. Wright reduces it to a mere convenience of the plot, a parallel with Henderson's amateur painting. This is his prerogative, but it is symptomatic of his unwillingness to dig deeper into the implications of his own narrative. Wright never really commits his imagination to the book's central conceit. Given all of the information Olivia eventually discovers has been held from her all her life, it is understandable that she would react by writing her long-lost daughter a confessional opus, outlining absolutely everything she knows about their lineage, though it is less understandable that she would also bother to include all of the intimate details of her current relationship with a married man, the aforementioned English professor. Worse still are the occasional linguistic anachronisms: at one point, he has Olivia's father describe the island of Nuku Hiva as being "insanely mountainous"¨this from a letter written in 1953. All of this undermines the authority of Wright's narrative.

This is the central problem with Henderson's Spear: for all of its accumulation of revelatory documents, the novel lacks authority. Ronald Wright has written a number of well-known travel books, so the geographic details he provides feel accurate, but they are drained of life¨ they are not the observations of his characters, but of Wright himself. Once again, he seems unwilling to allow in the distortions wrought by individual perception and psychology, and unable to recognize that in those very distortions, there is often illumination. Henderson's Spear may move over oceans and back and forth through centuries, but it is a novel content to skim over surfaces, however vast. ˛

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