Sympathy

by Dede Crane

Published by Raincoast Books

328 pages, 2006


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Beyond Grief

Reviewed by Cherie Thiessen

 

In Dede Crane's first novel, Sympathy, lives one of the most fully fleshed women I have ever met in fiction. Strangely enough, it's not the protagonist, Kerry, although we, the doctor and the staff at the prestigious Rosewood Clinic all know her much better than she would like. It's her mother, Arlene, whose every detail rings authentic and perfect.

We all know a woman like this. We admire her; we feel sorry for her; we want to hug her, shake her, give her a medal for her sacrifices and throw things at her. Arlene is the mother who lives for her children and her husband. She's the woman to whom appearances matter greatly; she's the one with a stiff upper lip, presenting a solid front and unflagging family devotion. How absolutely perfect, then, that the book begins with Arlene driving her youngest daughter to the clinic, but taking a quick moment en route to check out the fall fashions in one of her favorite boutiques, the only one to offer seniors' discounts.

This daughter has just been in a horrific car accident in which she lost both husband and only child. The shock has left her catatonic. In a final attempt to bring her back, Arlene is taking her to undergo controversial new therapy with Dr. Michael Myatt at Rosewood.

Kerry has separated her mind from her body, in much the same way as the carnage she witnessed. Her body still responds beautifully. After all, she is a recently retired ballet dancer of some renown. However, her mind is a blank page. Her sightless stare is a challenge no healer can yet rise to.

Myatt is certain he can help with his special blend of Jungian free association, color therapy and cranical sacral therapy, mixed with other elements, a unique blend skillfully concocted by the author, who says she "only realized after the fact, that the structure I'd come up with, based on will, was founded on child developmental psychology and the development of ego from the Buddhist understanding. Both things I'd studied quite a bit of, formally and informally."

The post traumatic stress disorder wing is shared with other carefully drawn characters: the pimply Johnny who becomes obsessed with Kerry, the obese Norma who cannot reconcile the death of her daughter, the feisty Marcus who wants to punch out the world.

Kerry's family is also in the foreground: her beloved father who is seriously ill and being cared for devotedly by her mother (well, except for that one time) and her close siblings. Even Michael's family lurk around the edges: his sister whom he hasn't seen for ages, and his deadbeat dad who disappeared on his wife and children in order to live another life with his mistress. Michael has his own ghosts to confront but in seeking them, he inadvertently destroys much of what he has been building at the clinic. We're not party to Michael's reaction upon returning to Rosewood, but we feel for him. He doesn't deserve what happens.

The simplicity and gracefulness of the writing belies the density of the plot and the ideas that are being explored. It's only later, when attempting to tell someone the gist of the tale, that the shadows in these literary waters become evident. Only then may it occur to you that there is another word submerged beneath the text: passion. This is not surprising when Crane explains the writing of her novel. "I did not set out to publish a novel. I set out to explore certain issues in my life and this story emerged. I'm also very impulsive so I just jumped in and stuff poured out. The novel came from a very subconscious place and it was only after finishing a first draft and then stepping back from it that I'd realized the particular demons I'd exorcised .... The book was a very cathartic exercise for me."

Framing each chapter are Kerry's earlier writings in a beautiful journal her closest friend, Hugo, has given her. An internationally recognized choreographer and past dancer, Hugo has known Kerry for many years. These journal entries give the reader an opportunity to navigate Kerry's mind before trauma wiped out all details. Hugo is a lifeline in Kerry's world, and one of Michael's mistakes was in not recognizing that because Hugo, like the author herself, understands the passion of dance. Also a former ballet dancer, driven in much the same way as her protagonist, Kerry, Crane hints at this passion in a recent interview. "It's an extreme sport, so to speak, and I think I was driven by a sense of perfectionism, a love of the form, addiction to the physicality of it and a passion for interpreting music .... and performing was a definite rush."

Much like a many veined and colorful fall leaf, the passion of the dance and the dancer has been made tangible, pressed between the pages of her first novel. And don't you just love Arlene? An impressive first novel that accomplishes probably more than it attempted. | June 2006

 

Cherie Thiessen has been a scriptwriter, playwright, creative writing instructor and -- for the past 10 years -- a travel writer and book reviewer. She was the review columnist for Focus on Women Magazine for eight years and has also written numerous reviews for magazines including Monday Magazine, Pacific Yachting, Cottage Magazine, The Driftwood News, Linnear Reflections and Douglas College's Event Magazine.