Harper Flamingo Canada, 1998
First published in: Haliburton County Echo, County Life
Review by: Kerry Riley
Can the human spirit find rest and refuge in the wilds? Can the silence of the forest heal a wounded heart? Is the soul at home in the natural world? These are interesting questions for those of us who live surrounded by wilderness. While our current local mind set, molded by an economy dependent on an appreciation of the outdoors, and an environmentally-aware reverence for the natural world, seems to demand an affirmative answer to all three questions, Greg Hollingshead, in his most recent novel The Healer tends to take a deeper, darker, less trusting look at nature and man’s place in it.
Hollingshead, an Edmontonian, may be most familiar to readers as the 1995 Governor General’s Award-winning author of The Roaring Girl, a collection of his short fiction.
The main character, Timothy Wakelin, is a successful freelance journalist, reeling in the wake of his wife’s recent suicide. He’s been asked to investigate rumours, sifting out of northern Ontario, of a twenty-year-old “faith healer” named Caroline Troyer, and to produce a story for a national women’s magazine based on his findings. He considers it a bit of a fluff assignment and sets out from the city, cynicism intact, arrogantly certain of what he will find — in his words, “an attention-seeking daughter of dysfunction,” — all the while remaining pathetically unaware of his own fragility.
He represents the tail-end of a deluge of paparazzi, all of whom had been intent on cashing in on the “miracles” story. Sensing the town’s current irritation with outsiders, and journalists in particular, he assumes the role of a jaded city-type seeking silence in the form of local property, hoping to get at his subject indirectly through her father Ross Troyer, the local real estate agent. Right from the start, Wakelin can’t quite get a bead on Caroline — she’s a reticent, inscrutable, scruffily luminous character. There’s something there, he feels, but something, also, not right about the father. Not certain what it is he’s dealing with, he nevertheless come to the decision that a story about it would be wrong. In the meantime, not the most self-aware of individuals, he confuses his own very real need for spiritual refuge with his professional role-playing and ends up actually buying property — an isolated, forsaken location, deep in the wilderness, accessible only on foot or by boat. Very shortly, it becomes the epicentre of a veritable cascade of gothic horror, madness, strange energies, suffering and quest, set off by an incident involving Wakelin and Caroline which enrages her father. All three, at times, are lost or searching in an implacable, threatening and unpredictable wilderness. Some make it home.
A word of warning at this point — the story develops into a dark, grueling tale, at times graphic and brutal, with echoes of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness — not suited for the literarily faint of heart. The limits of sanity, the truth and significance of memory, and the veracity of cultural and physical landmarks are all examined in some detail as the plot progresses.
Hollingshead does horror and madness well. His depictions of the workings of a mind, unhinged and unaccountable, are both terrifying and fascinating. The flood sequence which coincides with Ross Troyer’s psychological collapse is a white-knuckling, stomach-clenching read.
Stylistically, Hollingshead’s writing can take some getting used to. While, for the most part, the story moves along in an absorbing manner, the reading is never easy, and “transparent” is not an adjective that springs to mind when seeking to describe the prose. Much of the narrative unfolds in the private thoughts of complicated characters. This, combined with the author’s hands-off approach to explanation, leaves a lot of intuitive work for the reader. “Intuitive” is an important word here — while some of the passages frustrate the rational, language-oriented parts of the brain, they do, in all fairness, contribute to a holistic, intuitive understanding of some very elusive concepts. When finished one does feel one understands things better, even if one can’t say exactly how. Certainly, an author exploring madness, the mysteries of the subconscious mind, and the limits of knowing, must be granted some leeway in these matters. Even with leeway granted, however, one is still, occasionally, defeated by a passage so convoluted, so byzantine, so downright indecipherable, that frustration seems the only reasonable response and one can’t help feeling that the writer is being deliberately and unnecessarily obscure. (This admission comes from someone who enjoys Henry James!)
All things considered, it is a book to be recommended for the overall, unsettling power of the story and for what it might remind us about nature and ourselves. It does give a fair return for the efforts involved in its reading.