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Book Review : Hell Explodes in an Epileptic Seance

February 01, 1988|CAROLYN SEE

Second Sight by Anne Redmon (E. P. Dutton: $17.95; 269 pages)

Well, this is a perfectly satisfying novel of the unspeakable, the horrible, the terrible, the wretched, the Devil, the dead, the weird, the peculiar, the exotic and bizarre, and how all that stuff comes to a bad end against the possible influence of a beneficent God and the documented influence of true romantic love. Its ongoing metaphor, its fictional coat hanger holding up this fairly elaborate story-garment, is the disease of epilepsy--and does it produce . . . "Second Sight"?

Irene Ward has been raised in Baltimore. Her mother drinks, her father is homosexual and lives a separate, sinful existence in another city. Irene has an older twin brother and sister, Durrand and Mathilde, who have many and many a dark secret, and twin bad dispositions as well. Irene's life has been made miserable by her siblings and also by the fact that she's a very bad epileptic--has to wear crash helmets, is not allowed to go to school, is made to feel hideously different at every level. (Later, however, her frequent seizures will all but disappear for years. She will pursue a mild-mannered, celibate life as a schoolteacher, expecting little else. Only with the death of Durrand will Irene's seizures reappear--for a very nefarious and nasty reason.)

A Study of Christianity

At its most pretentious level, "Second Sight" is a study of three levels or kinds of Christianity. Not for nothing is this book set in Baltimore, that bastion of American Catholicism. Irene believes in God. She's a good soul, a literal visionary whose seizures allow her to see things that others can't: "ghosts" would be the simple term. But Irene perceives her Saviour as simply that. She thinks of God as protection, and her belief as solace.

For her siblings, Christianity is a very different matter. For Durrand, a sadistic pervert, being a Christian is a little like belonging to the Wehrmacht. He has enlisted in a lay-order called the Companionate, and Irene, remembering what her jealous sister, Mathilde, says about the organization, describes it thus: "She made me feel as if my continued subscription to the tenets of the Faith was a kind of collusion with the Nazi Party. They were fascists, she said--not out and out fascists, because they were too wily to be caught out; but they were fascists nonetheless, preoccupied with discipline and order to the exclusion of all else. 'Christ is a Fuehrer to them,' I remember her writing, 'not king, but Duce , an improbable, tasselled coxcomb of a God, whose chosen ones obey him with a wriggling, joyous slavishness.' "

Mathilde herself is another kind of Christian: she's a sinner, out and out, fighting every impulse for good that comes her way. Mathilde is obsessed with ancient, sacred icons and restores them with great reverence. But then she smuggles them across borders and sells them at great profit. More than that, she drinks too much, says cool things, and most probably has had an incestuous relationship with Durrand until he joined the Companionate.

Or is/was Durrand simply in a mad homosexual conspiracy? He certainly is/was in love with the head of the Companionate. The trouble here is that the "unspeakable" is never really spelled out. "Evil" just strolls around in an undefined way, while "Good" gets picked on a lot.

A Haunting Recurrence

It turns out that Irene is suffering a recurrence of her epileptic seizures because the dead Durrand--evil goof-off that he is--wants to reunite with Mathilde and take her away to some ill-defined netherworld of evil where at least they'll have each other for company.

At some point about halfway through this novel, Mathilde invites Irene on a nice trip to Ulan Bator. This is very pleasant for the reader because there's plenty of heavy-duty local color about Russian trains and desolate steppes and nomads in yurts and Mongolian monks, and at one point Irene gets to say, "For the love of God, let's leave this desperate place!"

Verbal Torment

All through the trip, however, Mathilde torments poor Irene with comments like, "Why were you ever born?," which seems unfair because she invited Irene along in the first place. The ghost of Durrand turns up everywhere like a boring guest who can't figure out when it's time to leave the party. On the other hand, Irene meets a decent fellow named John who falls in love with her and doesn't believe she's going crazy every time she sees Durrand.

"Second Sight" is a lot of fun to read, very stylishly written in a fancy, 19th-Century Gothic style. (Is "Anne Redmon" a pseudonym, I wonder? This book feels like a first-rate writer going out on a toot, having no end of fun with an essentially second-rate genre.)

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