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The Mystery of Right and Wrong

de Wayne Johnston

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1511,171,636 (4.2)Cap
NATIONAL BESTSELLER The Mystery of Right and Wrong is a masterwork from one of the country's most critically acclaimed and beloved writers that is both compulsively readable and heartstopping in the vital truth it unfolds. In a novel that grapples with sexual abuse, male violence and madness, Wayne Johnston reveals haunting family secrets he's kept for more than thirty years. Wade Jackson, a young man from a Newfoundland outport, wants to be a writer. In the university library in St. John's, where he goes every day to absorb the great books of the world, he encounters the fascinating, South African-born Rachel van Hout, and soon they are lovers.   Rachel is the youngest of four van Hout daughters. Her father, Hans, lived in Amsterdam during the Second World War, and says he was in the Dutch resistance. When the war ended, he emigrated to South Africa, where he met his wife, Myra, had his daughters and worked as an accounting professor at the University of Cape Town. Something happened, though, that caused him to uproot his family and move them all, unhappily, to Newfoundland.   Wade soon discovers that Rachel and her sisters are each in their own way a wounded soul. The oldest, Gloria, has a string of broken marriages behind her. Carmen is addicted to every drug her Afrikaner dealer husband, Fritz, can lay his hands on. Bethany, the most sardonic of the sisters, is fighting a losing battle with anorexia. And then there is Rachel, who reads The Diary of Anne Frank obsessively, and diarizes her days in a secret language of her own invention, writing to the point of breakdown and beyond--an obsession that has deeper and more disturbing roots than Wade could ever have imagined.   Confronting the central mystery of his character Rachel's life--and his own--Wayne Johnston has created a tour-de-force that pulls the reader toward a conclusion both inevitable and impossible to foresee. As he writes, "The Mystery of Right and Wrong is a memorialization of the lost, the missing women of the world, and of my world. I see it not as a dark book, but as one that sheds light--a lot of light--on things that, once illuminated, lose their power to distort the truth."… (més)
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I have read most of Wayne Johnston’s novels and have enjoyed them all; those I have reviewed on my blog have all been given 4-star ratings. I was excited to receive a digital galley of The Mystery of Right and Wrong, his latest, and it does not disappoint.

Wade Jackson, a young aspiring writer from a Newfoundland outport, meets Rachel van Hout while at university in St. John’s and falls in love with her. Little does he know how much the van Hout family will change his life. As he gets to meet Rachel’s three sisters and their parents Hans and Myra, he comes to see how dysfunctional they are. The daughters are all damaged souls: Gloria is hypersexual and has had a spate of broken marriages; Gloria is addicted to drugs provided by her husband Fritz; Bethany is an anorexic who has made several suicide attempts; and Rachel is hyperlexic, obsessively reading Anne Frank’s Het Achterhuis, and hypergraphic, obsessively writing a diary in a secret language. Wade accompanies Rachel to South Africa and it’s then that more and more family secrets are revealed, most with Hans at the centre.

The point of view alternates between Wade, Rachel, Rachel’s encoded diary entitled “The Arelliad” written in both prose and poetry, and Hans’ “The Ballad of Clan Van Hout”, a poetic family history which he composes and recites to his daughters. Reading “The Arelliad” is sometimes frustrating because much is left unexplained. Who, for example, is “Shadow She, the also-Anne”? The ballad is also confusing because Hans’ version of events changes and it is difficult to know what to believe. It does, however, provide great insight into Han’s mind and personality.

Characterization is a strong element in the novel. All major characters emerge as distinct. The four sisters, for instance, cannot be confused. They often seem to behave in illogical ways, but all is eventually explained. Rachel’s secret is the last to be uncovered, though I did guess the nature of it. Certainly the last great revelation explains Rachel’s obsessions. In case the reader is uncertain as to why she occasionally writes in poetic form, Johnston outlines his reasoning in the Author’s Note at the end of the book.

Hans will remain for me one of literature’s great villains; more than once I thought of Iago in Shakespeare’s Othello. He is full of self-pity: “I’m not the star that I should be because so many worker bees have spent their lives opposing me . . . the great held back by also-rans.” He doesn’t love his wife, pretending to “adore the woman who so loudly snores, the aging face, the greying head I cannot bear to touch in bed.” He wishes he “could have another wife” but “I would not sully with divorce what matters most – my name of course.” He’s a racist who said “’that the blacks were uncivilized and impossible to educate, so they should never be allowed to vote or to mix with whites.’” He is a master manipulator who accepts no blame for even his most despicable of behaviour. Some of his comments in his ballad left me speechless. Yet the reader, like Rachel, will ask, “Was it the sum of his experience that made [him] what he was, or some mechanism in his brain, some defect in his DNA?”

As the title indicates, the book examines right and wrong. Hans argues that right and wrong change over time, “The rules are endlessly revised.” Decisions made by several people at different times in the novel inspire one to consider if a wrong can be a right in certain circumstances. In order to survive, for instance, is it right to commit a wrong? As the author admits, he doesn’t offer answers to the questions it poses, but book clubs will find much to debate.

At over 550 pages, the book is lengthy. At first the revelations come slowly but then I wondered what other secrets would be revealed. I was even starting to think that the book was becoming almost unbelievable. Then the Author’s Note clarifies that the novel is based on people and events in his life. I was astonished by what Johnston discloses and by his bravery in doing so.

I highly recommend this book. Though the pace is sometimes slow and sections are confusing, all is eventually made clear. And though it touches on many serious topics, it is, as the author states, not a totally dark book. I’m not certain that I, like one of the book’s characters, can claim to be a “great reader” who reads with “hard-won discrimination,” but I do know this is a book that will reward a second reading: I’m certain it will make the author’s skill even more obvious.

Note: I received an eARC from the publisher via NetGalley.

Please check out my reader's blog (https://schatjesshelves.blogspot.com/) and follow me on Twitter (@DCYakabuski). ( )
1 vota Schatje | Sep 26, 2021 |
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NATIONAL BESTSELLER The Mystery of Right and Wrong is a masterwork from one of the country's most critically acclaimed and beloved writers that is both compulsively readable and heartstopping in the vital truth it unfolds. In a novel that grapples with sexual abuse, male violence and madness, Wayne Johnston reveals haunting family secrets he's kept for more than thirty years. Wade Jackson, a young man from a Newfoundland outport, wants to be a writer. In the university library in St. John's, where he goes every day to absorb the great books of the world, he encounters the fascinating, South African-born Rachel van Hout, and soon they are lovers.   Rachel is the youngest of four van Hout daughters. Her father, Hans, lived in Amsterdam during the Second World War, and says he was in the Dutch resistance. When the war ended, he emigrated to South Africa, where he met his wife, Myra, had his daughters and worked as an accounting professor at the University of Cape Town. Something happened, though, that caused him to uproot his family and move them all, unhappily, to Newfoundland.   Wade soon discovers that Rachel and her sisters are each in their own way a wounded soul. The oldest, Gloria, has a string of broken marriages behind her. Carmen is addicted to every drug her Afrikaner dealer husband, Fritz, can lay his hands on. Bethany, the most sardonic of the sisters, is fighting a losing battle with anorexia. And then there is Rachel, who reads The Diary of Anne Frank obsessively, and diarizes her days in a secret language of her own invention, writing to the point of breakdown and beyond--an obsession that has deeper and more disturbing roots than Wade could ever have imagined.   Confronting the central mystery of his character Rachel's life--and his own--Wayne Johnston has created a tour-de-force that pulls the reader toward a conclusion both inevitable and impossible to foresee. As he writes, "The Mystery of Right and Wrong is a memorialization of the lost, the missing women of the world, and of my world. I see it not as a dark book, but as one that sheds light--a lot of light--on things that, once illuminated, lose their power to distort the truth."

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