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Weirdly the woman
by John Ayre

When Greg Hollingshead won the 1996 Governor General's Award for his story collection The Roaring Girl, there was some question whether he was up to the demands of a full-length novel. While he did publish a short comic novel, Spin Dry, in 1992, it wasn't a highly focused narrative. He confessed that his strange characters with their gnarled mentalities might inherently subvert the very possibility of a lengthy plot. A protagonist, he thought, might always need some clear motivation to drive the story. In his anxiously awaited new novel, The Healer, shortlisted for the Giller Prize for Fiction, little has really changed in the darkly obsessed quality of his characters. Although most of them start off appearing ordinary, they quickly reveal hidden memories and uncontrollable motivations which quickly drive them out of ordinary bounds. Yet the plot, which borrows some of the conventions of deep woods thrillers like James Dickey's Deliverance, hardly suffers from the congestion of much of his earlier fiction.

A freelance journalist called Tim Wakelin, on the mend from his wife's suicide, tries to interview a twenty-year-old healer in a northern Ontario town for "a hick superstition story" for a national magazine. Caroline has miraculously cured an old man of a grapefruit-size lung tumour by a simple laying-on of hands. As a deception, Wakelin pretends he wants to buy property from the healer's father, who is a real estate agent. The search for a property, which precipitates a series of disasters, moves the narrative into Canadian Shield bush. It is unlikely the Shield has been observed with such darkly focused detail. Hollingshead, who knows the area, provides not so much a gothic fantasy of the woods as a compressed image of its real menace.

When Wakelin, no longer pretending, actually does buy a property, it is no gift. His land with its rickety, movie-set shacks is sealed off from the reach of cell phones, electricity, and passable roads. The welcoming committee is a bear-odd comic relief-which promptly runs Wakelin up a beech tree and seizes and gobbles up his first supply of groceries. A sudden river flood further closes off civilization, leaving an armed psychotic who has survivalist skills-the healer's father-near Wakelin's place. Symbolically the bush becomes a labyrinth. First Caroline herself searches through it for Wakelin, then her insane father searches for her, then Wakelin becomes lost and wanders for days, and then Caroline tries to retrieve him. These searches all become quests, but they end in injury and starvation.

Since these wanderings take up much time, Hollingshead provides himself with an opportunity, almost in the manner of a voice-over, to explain life, emotions, and the categories of existence. To a fault his rhetoric is often Faulknerian with a tendency to long-windedness and opaqueness. One sentence runs to 106 words, another to eighty-eight. The reader is supposed to understand the following: ".weirdly the woman came as a traveller from a greater distance than from that near site and also with eyes dark-ringed and a demeanor somehow contemporary if not thoroughly familiar as to be unrecognizable and also in a condition of whiteness the sleeper could and yet could not remember, as when in a dream it is imperative the eye open, but this act the dreamer has no capacity to perform." Fortunately this sort of linguistic knot-tying is rare.

Hollingshead here is talking about the healer herself, who, like the heroine of many traditional gothic novels, has a deliberately frustrating lack of substance. Wakelin and her father, white and black opposites, want the promise of love from her, at least of meaning. She hardly says anything, though, and when she does, it is only in a simple plain sentence. Hollingshead, who is very precise at defining the other characters, doesn't provide her with physical distinctiveness either. There is only the attentiveness of her eyes which are like those "beholding an accident. No emotion as yet. The accident continuing to unfold." This is the coolness in her, even annoyance, of an angel baffled by improperly behaving humanity. Caroline can still presumably accomplish miracles but cannot be pressured. When will she reveal herself again? When will she intervene against the series of events which veers towards horror? Since the powers potentially exist, there is continual tension, mystery, and, more important, the promise of release and absolution which can only come from her.

Even with some of its gothic overspill, The Healer is consistently interesting and runs quite well along with its own narrative insistency. Hollingshead as a result is in the enviable position of proving himself wrong. His characters with all their oddities and misdirected motivations do belong in a wider narrative. In contrast with virtually everything else he has written, it is the story which remains energized and expansive to the end. 

John Ayre is author of Northrop Frye: A Biography.


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