The Hypnotist

By Sarah Sheard

Published by Doubleday Canada

237 pages, 1999

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Earth Positive by Any Other Name...

Reviewed by Jay Currie


Sarah Sheard is a writer, psychotherapist and mediator. In The Hypnotist she wants to tell the story of a wounded healer and the woman he very nearly destroys. The title character, William, is a psychiatrist who uses hypnotherapy to attempt to improve the lot of those with eating disorders. He seems good at his job. William -- never Bill or Willy -- is lactose intolerant, has a largely unlived in condo worth half a mil and presents his women with cassette tapes of "opera, Gershwin, Presbyterian hymns, Van Morrison with the Chieftains, and some plainsong chanted in an English cathedral." But beneath the polished surface there lurks the dark heart of a man who "has not done his work."

Mutual friends introduce William to the adorable, vulnerable, Signe, (rhymes with fig tree). She is a photographer who, after dumping the older professor she married to enact the "daddy thing," is at loose ends on the man front. But Signe was introduced by her cat, Wizard, to a bountiful wise woman several years her senior who is a psychologist.

Signe falls hard for William. She ignores her work. She has a lot of sex which is not well described. It does, however, include having Signe dress up in "a pair of moss green tights in a herringbone pattern" as William attempts to hypnotize her. "Just allow yourself to let go... to open like a flower... to open... to allow pleasure into your being." Neat trick in a pair of tights.

Signe's friends and Miriam the cat-friendly-psych are worried. They do not hear from our girl for weeks. William has cast his spell. He moves in. He wants to marry Signe. Panic. If in doubt consult the Tarot, which -- with her gypsy girlfriend Sabrina -- Signe does at length. For nine pages the Motherpeace Tarot "boldly dancing naked women with black triangles and jaunty breasts, holding drums and snakes and half moons, a balancing antidote to the patriarchal imagery of the traditional Tarot" illuminate Signe's life with healing non-patriarchal images. But Signe goes to Paris with William anyway. They do not have a good time. Miriam finds out that William makes shopping lists while he is listening to the anorexic girls talk about their childhood sexual abuse. And so on.

There is nothing very wrong with The Hypnotist; the problem is there is nothing very right, either. Signe is a bit of a dolt. William is a bit of a cad. Toronto is somewhat cold in winter. So what?

One of the great difficulties in writing a psychological novel lies in creating plausible, interesting characters. Sheard takes a run at it but ends up with cartoons. The worst you can say about William is that he boinks his graduate students -- not a nice feature in these PC times -- but hardly the heart of darkness. Signe is what, in a gentler time, would be called fey. She makes rather doubtful choices because she is too intellectually lazy to make better ones. Miriam pulls a few strings, breaks a few ethical standards and proves to her own satisfaction that William is a bit of a bounder.

The root of the novel is the simple, melodramatic, question: Will Signe find out in time? Or will she be so taken in by bad Willy that she will ruin her life forever? Like most manufactured crises, this one fails to hold interest after a while. I found myself wishing the hopeless Signe would marry the bounder. At least then she would have some sort of life, a bit of real anger or real passion, even if it is negative.

I may well be The Hypnotist's sole male reader. This is a contribution to the burgeoning genre of chick-lit: tales of city passion gone wrong for 30- something, married-just-the-once, gals. A sort of up-market version of the romance novel. Unfortunately, the characters here are no more three-dimensional than the worst of the formula romance cartoons. Tarting it all up with women-positive-Tarot-and-Earth-mama-psychotherapists still leaves a story which really does not need to be told, much less read.  | January 2000


Jay Currie is the editor of two chairs magazine.