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Harlow, Robert.

Lantzville (B.C.), Oolichan Books, c1985. 348pp, paper, ISBN 0-88982-086-4 (cloth) $19.95, 0-88982-084-8 (paper) $11.95. CIP

Grades 12 and up
Reviewed by Barbara J. Graham

Volume 14 Number 3
1986 May

Voyages of personal discovery traditionally carry the reader through the protagonist's painful adolescent years as he/she struggles with the rites of passage necessary to assure a triumphant emergence into adulthood. Postponing the childhood-adulthood rite for his heroine, Robert Harlow, in his sixth novel, uses a trip to Poland, in 1981, as a multi-layered voyage of discovery for middle-aged Felice, who, until her late forties, has not really come to terms with herself, either as a person, or as a member of the human race. Harlow gives Felice an opportunity that does not come to many of us, an opportunity that brings not necessarily joy or contentment, but a true sense of self and one's place in the universe.

Felice is in a highly sensitive state as the novel begins. She is unsure of her role as a woman; she is just recovering from a hysterectomy. She questions her relationship with her husband; she has always quite willingly fitted into his life pattern and accepted his authoritative decisions. She wonders about her role as mother; her last child is just about to leave the nest. What is to happen to her when all that has given her life definition, her husband, the three children, and society's expectations, are loosening their hold on her? Even the handsome journal that her husband has given her in order that she may write about her life for posterity is a goading reminder to her that she really has no idea who she is. Her earlier change of name from Phyllis to Felice had not given her a true self and she doubts if she can find herself now.

And then Poland happens. Auschwitz happens. Felice experiences an epiphany that will change her life. But not her husband, not her friends at the Canadian embassy, nor her own children really understand what has taken place in the mind of this serious thinking woman.

Harlow tells his reader far more. The insular world of Vancouver, indeed Canada itself, needs such an epiphany that will awaken it to the wider reality of humanity. To do this, Canada too must go outside itself and discover the world.

The exploitation of women, another theme, winds through the narrative, adding texture and at the same time another confusing thread to a rather over-rich tapestry. The ideas are interesting, if not new; however, one wonders how much the narrative can take. Because, at its most basic level, this is the story of Felice, who in a state of emotional instability, goes on a trip to Poland with her husband, and has some terrifying misadventures because she foolishly decides not to be a typical tourist in an Iron Curtain country. The resulting trauma is painful for Felice and the reader who are left in a state of paralysis until they both can get back to the reality of living. While Felice agonizes, the narrative loses its importance and one begins to acknowledge that this is becoming more a novel of ideas and less a novel of action. Harlow has worthwhile things to say about freedom and oppression, about the self and its relationships, about politics in general, and Canada in particular, and about the role of women in our society. Unfortunately, the many parts are not a satisfying whole; the heroine, Felice, is simply not strong enough to hold it all together.

It is unlikely that Felice would have a wide readership in a school library. The themes and characters would not hold the interest of an average teenager, without active promotion. On the other hand, some adults, attracted by the adventure, may find the philosophical ideas presented appealing.

Barbara J. Graham, Board of Education for the City of London, London, Ont.
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