What happened, and can we ever know?

Review Novel

January 07, 2007|By Victoria A. Brownworth | Victoria A. Brownworth,Special to the Sun

The Uses of Enchantment

Heidi Julavits

Doubleday / 368 pages / $24.95

Memory is a Rashomon experience - five people experiencing the same event will remember five different things, all of them true for that particular person at that particular time. Memory is one of the most elusive complements to who we are, implacably defining. Yet what we remember - how and for what reason - is inextricably dependent on who we are as individuals. A trauma victim might block memory altogether as a self-protective mechanism, incurring amnesia about the traumatic event. Others may recall things that never actually happened - so-called "false" memory. We also judge the memories of others based on our own memory of shared events. Thus, memory becomes an interior fabric of truth and lies - what is, what isn't, what might be. Why we choose to remember what we do, how we frame, define and possibly lose our memories, is one of the most integral elements of who we are. Memory is the keystone of our reality.

Heidi Julavits regularly plays with the concepts of memory and reality in her fiction: What is and what might be shift continually within the context of her stories. In her latest novel, The Uses of Enchantment, chapter headings are regularly titled "What Might Have Happened."Are we to believe what this or that character suggests we believe - or not? Whose memory is valid, whose is not? These are just some of the compelling questions Julavits raises in her disturbing third novel, a treatise on memory, family, history and sexuality.

In 1999, Mary Veal returns to Salem, Mass., the town where she grew up, a town with its own dark history, to attend her mother, Paula's, funeral. Mary and her mother had a complicated relationship; Mary had hoped that there would be some kind of deathbed rapprochement: There was none. On her return, Mary finds she is still persona non grata because of what happened in 1985, when she was 16, and how it affected everyone in her sphere. She had awaited a deathbed call from her mother; after her mother's death she searches for some other acknowledgment of her mother's love and/or forgiveness.

What happened in 1985 is a matter of memory, conjecture or fantasy, depending on who is doing the telling. It is the heart of Julavits' dramatic tale of mystery, lies, betrayal and love.

In November 1985, on a rainy afternoon, Mary leaves a rained-out field hockey game at her all-girls school, Semmering Academy, and gets into a car with a man she has seen before, but whom she does not know. Weeks pass. Mary reappears on New Year's Eve, in the same place, on the bench by the hockey field. She is amnesiac, her memory of the lost weeks has seemingly vanished, much as she did.

Time passes. Mary claims she was abducted. Possibly raped. Her mother, a Social Register matron, would rather believe that Mary is lying than think her daughter was sexually molested by a stranger for weeks on end, tarnishing the reputations of all the Veal women. Paula wants to prove Mary is lying and sends her to a therapist.

The complex, surly and sometimes dissembling Mary sees Dr. Hammer, a psychologist who comes to the conclusion (aided by Paula) that Mary lied about her kidnapping and her memory loss. He begins to extrapolate parallels (which may or may not exist) between Mary's claimed memory of events and a centuries-old tale tinged with witchcraft about another kidnapped girl. Hammer writes a book about the parallelisms in which Mary's identity is only vaguely disguised. Then a second therapist, who believes Hammer took advantage of Mary for his own agenda, sets out to debunk Hammer's interpretation.

Paula was wrong: Being labeled a liar is not better than being a victim of abduction and Mary's life is ruined by the ensuing scandal. Paula never forgives her.

It seems seduction is another qualifier in life. Seducing, being seduced - young girls dream of both. But what is the price of seduction? Mary's story reveals both the quest and the price to be paid.

Julavits moves seamlessly among several vantage points: the omniscient overview of the events of 1985; the first-person narrative of Dr. Hammer; and the intolerable present of Mary's recent bereavement, where she tries to find herself within the confines of her past and present.

Mary was a difficult girl and remains a difficult woman. Her adolescence was complicated by her sexual fantasies; her adulthood has been shaped by her need to connect with her mother. After her mother's death, her uncomfortable relationships with her two sisters (the overbearing failed poet, Regina, and the failed lesbian, Gaby) recreate the discomfiting parameters of her relationship with her mother - with parallel anger and recrimination. Even Mary's father cannot interact with her. Mary is lost in her present because of everyone else's memories of her past.

And so she seeks to sort it out, revisiting every aspect of her past and of the alleged abduction in particular, to startling results.

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