A book not to be judged by its cover

Burden of Desire (Harvest Book)Burden of Desire by Robert MacNeil
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book is a complete surprise. Its title is at once misleading and accurate: one might easily expect Burden of Desire to be third-rate lightweight romantic escapism for a predominantly female readership. The only reason I read it was that I was urged to do so by a friend whose judgement I trust.

It is, in fact, an historical novel of depth, complexity and insight, which starts from a single event – the explosion of a munitions ship in Halifax harbour, Nova Scotia, in 1917 – and traces the aftershock of that disaster through the lives of three main protagonists, a woman and two men. In examining the psychology of the sexual repression and liberation of a post-Victorian era, it provides a detailed, almost clinical analysis of – yes, you’ve guessed it – the burden of desire.

It is above all a study of conflict: the Freudian tension between sexual repression and liberation, certainly, but also the conflict between the entrenched hierarchical certainties of the past and the fluid uncertainties and passionate experimentalism of the present.

The main arena for this conflict is in the characters of the three protagonists. Julia Robertson, unfulfilled wife of a soldier absent for two years, is stifled by the attitudes and expectations of family and society. Peter Wentworth, Anglican clergyman, is repressed on the one hand by theology and church hierarchy, and oppressed on the other by his own inadequate marriage and by the social and financial ambition of his in-laws. Stewart MacPherson, psychologist and student of Freud, does daily battle with medical, military and political authorities who refuse to acknowledge issues of mental health. These three are forced to confront a challenging agenda, ranging from personal loyalty and honesty to the meaning of courage, honour, duty and heroism.

In the wake of the three main characters, and alongside the baggage-train of their families, friends and neighbours, the city of Halifax – or rather, the aspirational middle-class element of Halifax – is a player in the drama in its own right. The social ambition; the strident patriotism and jingoism of a colonial city at war at the behest of its ruling power; the uneasy relationship with the less refined Canadian hinterland and the uneasier relationship with Canada’s brash, energetic young neighbour to the south – all these factors create an environment of mental turmoil, an emotional and societal powder-keg ripe for detonation by a far lesser spark than an exploding munitions ship.

Burden of Desire is a demanding read, as one would expect from a writer of MacNeil’s intellectual calibre. One would not want to spend forever in this atmosphere of unbridled Freudian sexual self-awareness, but it is a thoroughly satisfying read with a credible conclusion.

In fiction, my fifth star is normally reserved for the kind of prose that sinks deep into the mind for the sheer beauty and majesty of the language. MacNeil is a supremely competent writer, but the language of Burden of Desire stops just short of this kind of inspired linguistic craftsmanship.

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