The Rain Ascends

by Joy Kogawa,
217 pages,
ISBN: 0394281217

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Dagger Descends, Rain Ascends
by Allan Casey

Joy Kogawa has a habit of writing fiction around what's filling up the newspapers. Or is it the papers who follow her lead? In Obasan and Itsuka, she offered a first-hand look at the troubled lives of Japanese-Canadians during World War II, and the subsequent fight for reparation. That those issues received the media sympathy they did in the Mulroney years is owing at least in part to Kogawa's sensitive fiction.

This time, for the central thematic pillar of her short new novel, Kogawa has borrowed the newspaper issue of the decade: child sexual abuse. Millicent Shelby, the central figure and narrator of the story, has her adolescent world come crashing down one fall day when she learns that her father-clergyman, mystic, and missionary-is also a pederast. Told in a dizzying cascade of flashbacks and fastforwards, the drama isn't about the discovery of the preacher's unwholesome tendencies, but how Millicent makes sense of it over the course of decades. Millicent isn't one of her father's obvious victims, yet her wounds are deep.

Another writer might shudder at the thought of saddling a work of fiction with an issue that has too much been the bread and butter of city editors and talk show hosts. Kogawa is fearless. Along with her main character, she sets herself the task of understanding how one person can be both enormously good and bad. Does one quality nullify the other? The Good Reverend Shelby has changed the lives of thousands for the better with his line of music and worship schools, his evangelical radio programs, and his sheer piety. The Good Reverend's Shadow, however, admits to diddling no less than three hundred boys.

In densely biblical language, Millicent re-enacts the role of Abraham when he took his son Isaac to be sacrificed in the land of Moriah, trusting the Lord to spare the child even as the knife descended. Her dagger is the fiction itself. The victim she hopes so desperately to spare is a childlike faith, the certainty that goodness exists, especially in her own family. The reader knows that fate cannot intervene for her, that her innocence must be traded for experience, and Kogawa is at her best in portraying the minister's daughter in this state of self-reinvention, her biblical truths failing her, as she gropes for a new, truer "fiction" that will reconcile good to evil, the father to the daughter, God to the Goddess.

The story tries hard to shake the conventional approaches to child sexual abuse that junk journalism has bestowed on us. Millicent's sister-in-law Eleanor, whom we experience in the story mostly as a voice on the phone, represents the zero-tolerance argument, the string-him-up-and-let-God-deal-with-'em school. For her, the Reverend is pure evil. Then there's Marvin, one of the child victims, though in his adult mind he is anything but. He's a free thinker, with some vaguely positive ideas about adult-child sex, and is utterly dismissive about the effects of the Reverend's sexual advances on him. At one point, Kogawa cannot resist putting Millicent, Eleanor, and Marvin together on a park bench to watch the sparks fly. One can't help feeling Phil Donahue or Oprah is just off camera.

If the novel sometimes has difficulty transcending the tabloid nature of the subject, or escaping what Kogawa calls the "harsh and merciless light of the newspaper moon," it remains a fascinating, troubling, and compassionate exploration of the dark side of human sexuality. And, unlike our tabloid understanding of child sexual abuse, it refuses to portray the perpetrator as inhumanly evil, or his victims as inhumanly hapless.


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