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Fairy Ring

by Martine Desjardins,Fred Reed and David Homel, trans.

From the opening image – a dream in which Clara Weiss thrusts her hands deep into a heap of dead leaves and withdraws them covered in slime – Martine Desjardins’ Fairy Ring juxtaposes shocking physical images with the trappings of genteel Victorian life. The time is the summer of 1895, the place is a seaside resort in Nova Scotia, and the characters are well spoken, well written, and well heeled.
This is not the story of a holiday idyll, however. Clara is newly married to Edmond, a botanist whose very odour sends her into hysterical convulsions. A man of science, he proposes to cure her condition by administering the last word in medical treatments, among them sleep therapy, cold water enemas, and morphine. She writes about these ordeals in her diary, and in letters to her flirtatious sister and her frivolous aunt. Their replies offer Clara’s ordeal a level of comic relief, but the humour is contrasted against excerpts from the journal of the man whose house Clara and Edmond are renting. An explorer who becomes trapped in the Arctic ice, he thinks of Clara in his moments of deepest peril.
Given that 1895 was the year Sigmund Freud published his essay on hysteria and female sexuality, Desjardins quite clearly wants readers to think about what can happen when passion and instinct are deformed, repressed, and misunderstood. But despite the images of fungus and decomposing matter that pervade the narrative, and the grisly “therapy” Edmond forces on Clara, Fairy Ring is not depressing, distasteful reading. Like D.M. Thomas’s The White Hotel, the story taps into such strong psychological currents that the reader is propelled toward places he or she may rarely have gone. The book is compulsively – even perversely – good reading, and has been well translated from French by Fred Reed and David Homel.