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Book Reviews

The Only-Good Heart

by Beth Goobie

Beth Goobie, who won the Pat Lowther Memorial Award for Scars of Light, her 1995 book of poetry, again tackles the controversial subject of ritual abuse and cult worship in The Only-Good Heart, her 10th book. The novel follows a female narrator growing up in a cult that involves her in child prostitution and ritualized murder, and employs electric-shock programming and repeated assaults to brainwash her into submission.

In a series of fragments, Goobie presents a compelling sketch of a woman searching for her centre, her own self, while confronting demons of a very hostile sort. The language is poetic and perceptive (Goobie describes one character’s heart as “a very still place, like a corner quiet’s settled”) so much so that disturbing scenes of abuse are rendered strangely beautiful by the language of magic realism. But some fragments work better than others. The scenes of sexual abuse and control, in those fragments rendered without the backdrop of cult worship, ring most true. This story is really about the battles that all women face in a world controlled by men.

One of the strongest facets of this novel is its first-person explication of multiple personality disorder, into which, it has been argued, female victims of sexual abuse retreat. The disassociated personality of the main character serves as a platform for the exploration of several related themes: society’s objectification of the female body (the main character says at one point that “everything has always been about fucking”), the fact that people are not generally all good or all bad (the character discovers she cannot have an “only-good heart”), self-hate and forgiving oneself in a culture that often blames the victim, and how human beings locate themselves in love. These are lofty concepts rendered real by the author’s ability to personalize the political.

The Only-Good Heart is a complex, multi-layered exploration into suffering and survival. Its unconventional narrative is a brave rendering of one woman’s struggle to heal.