Novel explores moral distress

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March 11, 2014

The Dove in Bathurst Station

By Patricia Westerhof

Brindle and Glass

229 pages, $19.95

Reviewed by Katrin Horowitz

According to one character in The Dove in Bathurst Station, moral distress is “when you know what you should do but you don’t do it because it seems impossible.”  And how, Patricia Westerhof asks, do you extricate yourself from the life-sucking tentacles of moral distress?  That’s the core dilemma raised in her novel, which follows the tortuous journey that protagonist Marta takes as she looks for a way out of the guilt-baited trap she has painstakingly constructed for herself over the past 13 years.

Westerhof ‘s novel is an intriguing exploration of belief systems, from simple faith in chance and omens to more complex varieties of religious thought.  She highlights the profound impact that our beliefs have on our lives, and she does a masterful job of making the protagonist’s inner life feel real and important.

At the start of the book Marta, a 30- year-old guidance counsellor, focuses on the seemingly impossible, like the rock dove that hops into her subway car at Bathurst Station.  She interprets it as a mysterious sign from God and struggles to understand it.  This search for meaning in unusual places also leads her to explore the earthy underside of Toronto.  She finds a pungent, quiet place where the temperature is always constant, a labyrinth of confusing tunnels, drains and storm sewers full of leaks, echoes and impenetrable darkness.  And she knows that she’s risking her career by trespassing.  It is, of course, an extended metaphor for her interior life, with its dark memories of her teenage boyfriend whose suicide is the source of her guilt.

Meanwhile, Marta is ambivalent about everything in her life above ground, including her career and her marriage.  She is an insightful guidance counsellor who takes on issues ranging from an obscene t-shirt to a potential suicide, but she mourns her former career as a singer.  She enjoys the rich diversity in her inner city neighbourhood, especially St. Anne’s Anglican Church with its Group of Seven paintings, but she also blames her husband for his lack of a real job that would support moving to an upscale part of the city.  Marta claims to love her husband, but she suspects him of various infidelities and she’s frustrated by his failure to succeed as a band manager.  As the distance between them grows, she has a series of internal arguments with herself about whether to divorce him.

Unfortunately her husband never quite convinces us that he is anything more than a foil for her ambivalences.  And despite an early sex scene, their interactions lack emotional resonance.  Most of their conversations seem to be between a couple of roommates who barely know each other.  But that’s a minor flaw in a novel that is less about interpersonal relationships than about Marta’s relationship with herself and her God.  Throughout the book we find ourselves hoping that Marta will find forgiveness for her trespasses.

Katrin Horowitz’s latest novel, The Best Soldier’s Wife, was published in September 2013 by Quadra Books.

 

 

 

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