THE RECONSTRUCTIONIST
Josephine Hart


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Overlook Press, 2001
Reviewed by Joy Calderwood

Psychological Drama, Contemporary Britain

THE RECONSTRUCTIONIST makes an eventful drama out of a story line that is mostly internal. Specifically, a family cover-up is breaking down. In the Introduction, aptly named "Afterwards," we see Jack and Kate as children, found alone in a house where some mysterious tragedy has occurred. We also see their swift removal from any possible reminders of these happenings. Over and over they are told to forget everything.

In the present day story of THE RECONSTRUCTIONIST, Jack is a psychiatrist, a born caretaker but crippled inside. The book takes him through three main events. Jackís ex-wife has a sudden illness while out of the country, bringing him into contact with the family she has built since leaving Jack. From this we learn of Jackís distaste for anything that threatens his detachment. His sister considers marriage, and Jack is brought in to check out the situation and give the very special advice necessary for Kateís well-being. From this we learn that Jackís mission in life is to protect Kate. Jack and Kateís old family home comes on the market, and Jack visits the house for the first time since their childhood. Following this we learn what really happened that day, so vividly that we know neither of them has ever really forgotten.

Bringing this outline to life are the characters. We meet Jack first in the disguise he prefers to wear for himself, but the disguise is evident to the reader, and our curiosity is immediately aroused. We come to know Jack in a continually broadening sense, through his relations with his ex-wife Ellieís anxious second husband, their children who leave Jack feeling helpless, and Ellieís mother Rose. The buoyant Rose, either bewitching or irritating us depending on the reader, has a habit of zeroing in on the chinks in Jackís armor, providing us with the first leads in our exploration of his secrets. Rose also introduces us to the puzzle of Jackís relationship with Kate. She gives us a perspective that Jack finds completely alien. More under Jackís control, his patients tell us as much about him as they do about themselves. Remotely in the background are Jackís parents, who taught Jack and Kate the wrong lessons about love. Lastly there is Harold, Kateís intended husband, a force for change who can be a healing influence if he is carefully handled.

The author has written the story in an allusive style to trigger our deeper awareness of the essentials. Her implied ideas are more profoundly effective in making us feel her characters than a straightforward recounting would be. They also give us the sense of sharing an analystís insights. Whether clueing us into the undercurrents in Rose's conversation or sketching Jack and Kateís eerie ritual dance, her words hint at giant implications, and for a long time we must wonder how many of them are true. They are gradually unveiled with a level of suspense that is rewarding for the reader.

Hart suggests in THE RECONSTRUCTIONIST that perhaps unearthing traumatic memory is not such a good thing. Perhaps, she says, it should be left to rest. The realistically portrayed emotional condition of her characters, after decades of seeming to forget, says otherwise. Jack lives in a state of wary isolation, and needs so badly to bury his life in words that he dislikes animals because they canít talk. Kateís emotions are in fragile balance, calling on Jackís energy to such an extent that she crowds out anyone else in his life. Hartís novel is crammed with rich, powerful psychological observation, but her theory about leaving things in this condition is really quite unfeasible, and so is the insufficiently motivated change in Kate.

If I had allowed myself to be put off by the opening quote of THE RECONSTRUCTIONIST, which says in effect that if you donít feel guilty thereís something wrong with you, I never would have read the rest of the book. Fortunately I went on to the first page, and was immediately absorbed. It was amazing to discover how fast I was finishing it, because it has so much to think about. Without a doubt this sympathetic novel is the best drama I have read this year. But itís sad for someone to know as much about tragedy as Josephine Hart knows.

May 2002 Review Originally Published on the Independent Reviews Site

 

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