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Nine-Tenths Unseen: A Psychological Mystery

by Kenneth J. Harvey

I hope it’s not giving away too much to say that much of the “psychological mystery” of Kenneth J. Harvey’s new novel is which partner in this dark tale of a couple in an isolated Newfoundland outpost is crazier. The husband, the book’s narrator, is unnamed, the wife referred to only as “my wife” or “Mother.” While their marriage is manifestly hard on them, it seems to be lethal for anyone who ventures into it. A young son accidentally drowned years before. Now both are agitated about their daughter Julia’s Christmas visit.

“She will see us in a different light,” her father thinks. “How to explain what has become of us?” Returning after years away at university to make her peace – and tell her folks she is pregnant – Julia believes her arsenal of paganism, candles, and unicorn lapel pins will ward off the family demons that drove her away. Her father confides that her mother buries things in the back yard, though he does not tell her that he does too. While he agrees that her mother is sick, he struggles to conceal horrific visions that overtake him with the monotonous regularity of screensavers. Oracular utterances come from the mouths of his neighbours. He is beset by towering erections, worms, tongues of flame, visions of My Lady of Exquisite Agony stripped and spread-eagled on the cross. He imagines (or attempts?) redemptive rituals of penetration and degradation with wife and daughter. While all this is unfolding – nine-tenths unseen – an iceberg that is a close cousin of the one in Findley’s The Telling of Lies looms in the harbour, menacing with symbolism. It blocks the entrance, preventing boats from going out to fish, but then there are no fish left anyway.

Harvey’s previous book, the story collection, A Hole That Must be Filled, was noted for its bleakness while it was treated respectfully for its raw vision. This new novel, 12 years in the writing, has a similar profile, its darkness excruciatingly sustained for over 200 pages with few respites. Criticisms of its characterization are pointless – everyone and everything twists in the narrator’s mind’s eye. As a portrait of mental and spiritual disorder, it is often brilliant; its densely worked imagery forms an overwhelming, apocalyptic riddle. As a mystery, psychological or otherwise, it is not so much scary as appalling, making Nine-Tenths Unseen about the last thing I’d chose to take to the beach, or to wile away a difficult Christmas.


Reviewer: Maureen Garvie

Publisher: Somerville House


Price: $19.95

Page Count: 210 pp

Format: Paper

ISBN: 1-895897-65-3

Released: Apr.

Issue Date: 1996-4

Categories: Fiction: Novels