The infinite ways in which trauma can impact a person and those around them are a mystery – similar experiences can affect each person in radically different ways, and their effects can spread out like waves from a stone: unrecognized at first, but potentially devastating later on. This is the topic Wayne Johnston explores in his latest novel, The Mystery of Right and Wrong.
The protagonist, Wade Jackson, meets and falls for a young South African woman, Rachel van Hout. As their relationship deepens, it becomes increasingly apparent that Rachel has internalized some deep trauma that manifests itself both in an unhealthy obsession with Anne Frank’s diary and through hypergraphia (compulsive writing). Each of her three sisters demonstrates similarly compulsive, but differently manifested, issues, as Wade discovers over the course of the story.
While Johnston centers the first part of his narrative in Newfoundland (as he does many of his previous novels), the story then moves farther afield: first to South Africa, and then to Amsterdam. In each of these locations, what was previously hidden deep within the four sisters gradually comes to light, and the impact of those revelations is searing.
It has been a very long time since I encountered a book that I both could not put down, and that remained with me for days afterward. Over the years I’ve seen how childhood experiences – both good and bad – mark us ever after, and shape our responses to what we encounter as we go through life. Some of us manage to cope reasonably well with the internal baggage we carry; others, like the four van Hout sisters, manifest disorders such as anorexia, hypergraphia, or other compulsions as a defensive mechanism or perhaps a means of avoidance, a relentless grasping toward control of something in life when all else seems uncontrollable.
Without spoiling either the plot or Johnston’s afterword, a great deal of the story originates in things Johnston has seen in his own life and those of his loved ones. While some elements of the book might seem farfetched at first, they are rooted in truth, like the very best fiction is at its core. Johnston’s writing is relatable and engrossing; this novel will haunt you for days. Highly recommended.
Published: 21 September 2021
Publisher: Knopf Canada
Photo Credit: Mark Raynes Roberts
We encourage you to support your local independent bookstore (search here for bookstores in Canada and the US).