Quill and Quire

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The Understanding

by Jane Barker Wright

The “understanding” of the title is presumably that which exists between Solly and Isobel Whitechapel, the couple at the centre of this novel: he’ll continue to womanize, she’ll continue having babies. This arrangement has been in place since their first years together in a Gulf Island commune, set up in a crumbling, overgrown farmhouse. It has continued through two decades in a gentrifying Vancouver neighbourhood. But buried deep in their bohemian menage is a messy secret. Disastrously, their rock-star daughter, the sullen, spectacular Magnolia White, discovers it and decides to out her parents to the press.

This is Jane Barker Wright’s second novel – the first, The Tasmanian Tiger, was published in 1988, allowing a considerable interval for the well to refill. Her new novel is just as textured and complex as her first, with strong forward momentum. The Ontario-born Wright now lives in Vancouver, but she has also spent time in Australia and New Zealand. That Antipodean sojourn may have played a part in forming her sharp-edged, Fay Weldonesque style. The writing is wry and clever: routine is “smoothed over disaster like icing on a cracked cake,” the smell of blood is “provocative as baking bread.”

In concentrated scenes and scraps of dialogue, Wright captures the lively chaos of the Whitechapels’ domestic milieu: the nine children, from 23-year-old Willow down to the toddler Monty; Isobel’s henna-haired feminist mother; Solly’s female following; the gang of street kids he trains in his workshop. A craftsman with an international reputation, Solly is extravagantly loved by his wife and many other women, yet he remains a shadowy figure on the page.

More convincing is the mousy, chain-smoking Isobel. She and Solly both know how fragile their world is. As scene builds on scene, it is the dynamic Isobel we come to believe has the strength to save it – if anyone can.