The Mystery of Right and Wrong by Wayne Johnston, Knopf Canada, 2021

My first introduction to Wayne Johnston was his book ‘The Colony of Unrequited Dreams’, which I think is as good a book as has ever been written in Canada.  ‘The Mystery of Right and Wrong’ is a much more difficult novel than his earlier book for several reasons, not least of which is a story line that delves into the morass of incest, child abuse and murder.  It’s a book that methodically reveals family secrets through the curious convention of having two characters create rhyming poems, interspersed with the narrative prose, to fill in the background.  Although Rachel is the only character recounting the poems, both characters were responsible for their creation.  It seems that when Rachel begins speaking or writing in rhyme, it is a sign of her mental distress.   

The story begins with Wade, a naïve young man hoping to become a writer, who meets the brilliantly quirky Rachel in a Halifax library and is instantly fascinated.  As love kindles, Wade has no idea Rachel’s life is fraught with lies, deceit and obsessions that are the result of her attempts to deal with horrifying family secrets.  She is the youngest of four sisters and is obsessed with the diary of Anne Frank, a book she reads thousands of times while writing furiously in a language that she’s created and no one else can read.  She’s been hospitalized several times for mental breakdowns and her three sisters are functioning little better.  Gloria, the eldest, is a brazen sex addict, currently married to Max, an older and wealthy man.  Carmen is addicted to drugs and married to a dealer named Fritz.  Bethany is chronically debilitated and hospitalized due to anorexia.   

Although Rachel and Wade are the principal characters in this novel, it is Rachel’s father Hans that is the ‘éminence gris’ that drives the plot.  Hans van Hout begins his life in Holland as a youthful racist, anti-Semite and Nazi collaborator who moves to apartheid South Africa after the war, refashioning himself as a Dutch resistance fighter.  Hans starts teaching accounting at the university and marries Myra.  Myra is an enabler, the one who sees nothing, hears nothing and whose sole duty is to support her husband by looking the other way, providing alibis and fiercely maintaining the appearance of normalcy to the outside world, despite how eccentric the couple appears to those around them.

The poems Hans writes are about his life – dropping hints along the way that eventually reveal his depravities.  He devotes countless hours recounting these poems to his daughters, beginning when they are very young.  The daughters eventually have them memorized, absorbing the self-serving messages about Hans’ contempt for societal norms and his superiority to those that abide by them.  He dominates his girls in every way possible, including the ‘special love’ that he lauds in his poems and bestows on them at night. 

The poems eventually reveal that his predatory nature isn’t limited to his family.  Hans is a restless fellow who roams the streets at night in his car, picking up victims while still finding time to accost his daughters as well as the household’s black servant.

Hans is forced to leave South Africa after an incident with one of his students.  The university supports a move to Newfoundland in order to prevent the misdeed from becoming a public scandal.  In Newfoundland Hans is able to resume his activities, abusing his children and trolling for others during the nights.  The daughters are so captive to his power that, even as they grow older, marry and leave the family home; they are still prey to Hans, who will pursue and abuse them at every opportunity.  

During a wicked winter storm Hans is driving with Rachel and picks up one of his university students.  Rachel insists on being dropped off at home before her father drives the student home.  When Hans has lured the woman to a secluded spot, he attempts to sexually assault her.  When she rebuffs him and fights against his advances he strangles her and dumps her naked body by the side of the road.  Rachel is haunted by the thought that she is responsible for the girl’s death and, although she holds the only proof that ties the murder to Hans, feels powerless to alert the authorities.  Hans evades detection and now adds murder to his playbook.

When Rachel decides to help her sister Bethany return to South Africa, Wade decides to join her.  Rachel reconnects with Gloria and Carmen, both of whom now live there with husbands.  With his remaining family headed for South Africa, Hans decides to retire, pays for Wade expenses and joins them in the move.  He begins reasserting his domination over his daughters as soon as he arrives.  Bethany is again hospitalized and, while there, reveals the family secret.  At first the accusations are met with denials by everyone and recanted by Bethany.  But circumstances eventually drive the sisters to acknowledge the truth.  Finally united, the sisters decide that there is only one recourse left to them.

Wade is left with only a partial understanding of Rachel’s demons and is misinformed as to what happened to Hans.  Despite this ambivalence, Wade’s relationship with Rachel continues despite the secrets they continue to keep from each other, each believing they are protecting the one they love.

It’s a sad and gripping tale but, astonishingly, it’s actually not just a chilling portrait of a predatory monster.  At the end of the book Johnston reveals that the story is based on personal reality – it mirrors the history of his wife’s family and makes use of Johnston’s personal battle with OCD, a trait he bestows on the character of Rachel.  

Johnston found out about his wife’s father when one of his brother-in-laws arrived unexpectedly at his apartment and told him that his own wife had disclosed on-going sexual abuse of all four sisters.  Like the fictional Rachel, his wife has three sisters and their father sexually abused all of them.  Like Hans, the father’s abuse didn’t stop even when the girls married and moved away from the home.  Like Hans, he was also a ‘person of interest’ in the murder of a teenaged girl. 

The novel blends reality with fiction rather seamlessly. Johnston says it’s not to blur reality but to sharpen its message.  Like the fictional Wade and Rachel, Johnston and his wife eventually confront her father and, although he denies everything, he makes the chilling observation that ‘even if it (the allegations) were true, they were his daughters and he could do whatever he liked with them.’

There are two places where the novel departs from Johnston’s ‘real’ story line.  In the novel, the sisters finally unite and take matters into their own hands.  The death of Hans provides a release for the sisters, who then go their separate ways.  In real life, Johnston’s father-in-law lived into his nineties and died of natural causes – his death the catalyst that finally reunited the sisters.  Hans’ demise at the instigation of his daughters is perhaps a more satisfying fictional conclusion than real life, but I found it curious that instead of binding them closer as it did in reality, Johnston decided that it made better fiction to have Han’s death result in the severance of the fictional sister’s bonds.

Johnston asserts that ‘The Mystery of Right and Wrong’ is not a dark book.  His stated intention is to throw light onto this heart of darkness and celebrate the remarkable resiliency of the women who survive such ordeals.   What’s less successful for me is Johnston using Wade to wrestle with the question of how he (we) should view Hans – the ‘mystery’ part of the title.  Is Hans a monster, plain and simple, or is he a victim as well – driven by childhood experiences and/or internal impulses over which he has no control?  

I’m willing to concede that we do not question the motivation of a venomous snake when it strikes or kills, but accepting that Hans has no control and no choice in his actions puts him into the same category as the snake – it makes him a non-human.  We don’t waste time classifying predatory animals as sociopaths or psychopaths, debating their degree of culpability, and we deal with those that begin killing humans in a straightforward way.

Those like Hans wreak their havoc on a relatively small number of people and garner condemnation when they are finally unmasked.  A murkier question is why this kind of personality, those ‘dead to empathy’, can thrive in politics, producing the likes of Hitler and Putin whose supporters allow them to devastate on a global scale.

TL:DR – A difficult, disturbing and important book that is well worth the effort.  Johnston is a writer of immense talent.

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