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Hospital, Janette Turner.

Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, cl985. 287pp, cloth, $19.95, ISBN 0-7710-4222-1. CIP

Grades 12 and up
Reviewed by Pamela Black

Volume 14 Number 2
1986 March

There is a tendency in current critical practice to view all art, from classical to post-modern, as a form of expression that is about itself. It is, of course, impossible to say for sure whether this view is true or not. Janette Turner Hospital, however, seems to be very aware of this, and many other twists and turns in literary theory, and she does not hesitate to play with them all in her latest novel, Borderline. Do not think for a moment that she has sacrificed readability to literary game playing. This book is as readable as anything Margaret Laurence has written and it should ultimately usher Hospital into Canada's circle of literary greats.

No word is wasted in this tightly woven work. We are prepared from the start for precisely the sort of odyssey that lies ahead. One of the book's epigraphs tells us that "All one's inventions are true, you can be sure of that. Poetry is as exact a science as geometry (Flaubert)." But if inventions are true, what can truth be, and, in fact, what is fiction? Where is the borderline between them and what happens when it is crossed? Which of the Characters in this book are real and which of them are the dreams and inventions of oilier characters? This is the ground that this book travels.

The heroine (or one of them), Felicity, arranges art exhibits; she deals with things in frames. One of her lovers is a famous artist who makes her feel that her real existence is on his canvas and that her bodily self is a mere abstraction. She has nightmares about being trapped in paintings and spends most of her time being evasive and disappearing. When Hospital wants to, she can really create a scene. For instance, Felicity's accomplice border -crosser, Gus (Augustine), returns home to his wife late one night, drunk, and with the burden of his infidelity on his conscience. The picture is riveting. We share Gus's every thought. We feel his failed good intentions, his guileless love, his self-delusions. We feel drunk and unfaithful. For this reason I was puzzled by what at first seemed to be a lacuna in the centre of the novel in the character of Felicity. Most of the time she is not believable, and though so many in the novel seem to love her, she is not really even likeable. But she too is a part of Hospital's grand scheme. She is a deconstructionist heroine, so to speak. She is there to cure us of our desire to find truth and beauty at the centre of all art, radiating meaning to all parts of the whole. No meaning radiates from Felicity; she is only the reflection of ourselves in our anxious search for it. Another encapsulated version of ways to approach this great search is told in a South Indian account of the Sisyphus myth:

A man pushes the familiar rock up the same steep hill, but his purpose is not to get to the top and the story is not about futility and despair. After each hard-won morsel of climb, the rock plunges back to the bottom and the man dances and laughs and claps his hands. He puts his shoulder to the rock again, he sweats, he grunts, he gains fifty feet-for the sheer pleasure of watching that boulder get nowhere.

Whatever one's attitude towards life's larger questions, this book should be useful in thoughtful high-school literature classes and invaluable at the university level. Janet Turner Hospital has written two other novels, The Ivory Swing* (winner of the Seal First Novel Award in 1982), and The Tiger in the Tiger Pit (McClelland and Stewart, 1983). I cannot recommend her work highly enough.

Pamela Black, Simon Fraser University, Vancouver, B.C.

*Reviewed vol. XI/1 January 1983 p.15.

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