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The Understanding

by Jane Barker Wright
189 pages,
ISBN: 0889842426


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A Wicked Kind of Flowering
by Steven W. Beattie

The Understanding, the second novel by Vancouverite Jane Barker Wright, is a maddening little trifle. For most of its 198 pages, it appears to be another in a long line of Canadian domestic dramas, examining the life of Isobel Whitechapel, mother of nine, who as a young woman longs for passion and art, but finds herself sacrificing her bohemian ideals for the routine and ordinariness of familial domesticity.
Then, about 150 pages into the book, a staggering thing happens: this quaint, bland, unremarkable story takes a sharp turn toward the Gothic and we are suddenly immersed in a shadow world of infidelity, murder, and kidnapping that seems, on its surface, to bear little resemblance to what has come before. The result is a strange kind of hybrid, an intriguing¨if not altogether satisfying¨book that reads almost as if Joyce Carol Oates had written The Stone Diaries.
To be fair, Wright displays a certain amount of subtlety and legerdemain in the way she lays the groundwork for what happens. The novel opens in Vancouver in the mid-nineties. Isobel and her husband, Solly, are "the best kind of famous." Solly makes furniture and has garnered something of an international reputation for himself. Isobel is heard regularly on the CBC. And their daughter, Magnolia, has found fame as a rock musician. Things start to unravel when Magnolia disappears while on a concert tour and Isobel is publicly accused of kidnapping her as an infant and posing as her birth mother.
From there we are thrust back into the past, to the summer when Isobel, seventeen years of age and a straight-A scholarship student, is about to begin taking art classes at Queen's, much to the consternation of Frances, her mother. In no time, Isobel is swept off her feet by Solly, a free-love, 70s hippie with a rickety old car he has named Rex, who drives her out west to a rural farm where they set up a sort of ad-hoc commune to provide work to street kids and runaways. From there, the novel bounces back and forth between Isobel and Solly's early life together in the 70s, and the narrative present of the 90s, as Isobel becomes embroiled more and more deeply in the kidnapping scandal.
To be sure, there are hints and premonitions and Gothic overtones sprinkled throughout the first two thirds of the novel. There is practically no mention of sex or birth without a corresponding reference to life's other bookend. Sex and death are inextricably linked in this novel in a manner that might have given Freud pause. Solly makes love to a pregnant Isobel and "couldn't believe that the emergence of this huge growth would leave Isobel intact: bones would break, flesh would part. Tears and semen ran when they made love. He knew she was about to die." Solly later witnesses the birth of his first child¨the only one he can bring himself to observe¨and thinks ruefully, "birth was perfectly normal and ordinary and, like many other ordinary events, it was tinged with magic and danger, an event so close to death he refused to watch it ever again."
Death haunts the novel in other ways: Solly is enlisted to kill a marauding cougar that Isobel imagines eating one of her children, and when asked what she is going to be for Halloween, Magnolia answers, "The Queen of the Dead." Isobel's maiden name is "Lamb" (think: sacrificial lamb). Her married name, Whitechapel, clearly recalls the London district where old Jack did his ripping. There's even an actual ghost that haunts the Vancouver house where Isobel and Solly take refuge.
Yet, despite all of this, the orgy of violence and melodrama that takes over in the novel's final act seems curiously out of place and discordant with what has preceded. Wright takes care to portray Isobel as a woman who longs for a life of passion and danger, but is infused with a streak of caution that often sees her scurrying for the safe haven of normalcy and routine; in this sense, her character and the book she inhabits are of a type. Even in her painting, Isobel confines herself to representations of flora that her mother calls "pleasant accessories" and claims contain "the dry husk of vitality." Frances sees in her daughter's art "an enshrinement of the insignificant."
For better or worse, it is this same "enshrinement of the insignificant" that appears as the dominant tone throughout most of The Understanding. Even when it focuses on the fallout from the kidnapping scandal and Isobel's subsequent indictment, the novel's approach seems muted, quiet, understated. When, in its last forty pages, the novel suddenly has its volume cranked way up, the effect is startling. Perhaps this was the intention. However, one can't help but feel a certain nagging dissatisfaction at the book's close, a sense that the various parts of The Understanding don't quite cohere. In many ways, the structure of the book mirrors the dichotomies embodied by its central character. Unfortunately, for this reader at least, when "the dry husk of vitality" is blown away, it is somewhat jarring to encounter the bloody, throbbing heart beating beneath it. ˛
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