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The Rope in the Water: A Pilgrimage to India

by Sylvia Fraser

Author Sylvia Fraser’s life story is the florid stuff of daytime TV. Previously she’s chronicled her recovered memories of incest (My Father’s House) and her quirky supernatural experiences (The Book of Strange). The Rope in the Water recounts Fraser’s three-month pilgrimage to India in search of “something larger than myself, something deeper, something more.”

Fraser’s India is something all right: 30-hour bus rides along pot-holed roads, occasionally interrupted by theft, nausea, and uneventful sojourns at cultish retreat centres. This is India as Narnia, an “exotic” theme park where “natives” portray such cartoon characters as Charming Pickpocket and Inscrutable Swami. Fraser’s unique contribution to this literature of spiritual colonialism is a levitating, transgendered “spirit guide” called Moonji, a cross between Joseph Campbell and Jiminy Cricket who pops up with alarming frequency throughout The Rope in the Water. Moonji’s explanations of Hindu doctrine sound less like authentic speech than encyclopedia entries set off by quotation marks.

Stylistically speaking, Fraser’s attempts at lyricism are merely adjectival, more like the efforts of a promising creative writing undergrad than a veteran author. Workmanlike similes abound – “Like a bird, Eastern teaching has two wings…” – as does barefaced self-absorption – “It is then I realize that while I’ve been dreaming India, India has been dreaming me.”

The Book of Strange was great fun. Sadly, the same cannot be said for The Rope in the Water. With her latest work, Sylvia Fraser has succeeded in positioning herself as Canada’s Shirley MacLaine. And that is not a good thing.