Like her powerful 1981 debut, Obasan, Joy Kogawa’s new book explores the crippling silence surrounding a heinous crime. The semi-autobio-graphical Obasan, which won a Books in Canada First Novel Award, tells of a Japanese-Canadian family’s internment during the Second World War. The work was more than a fictional redressing of past wrongs; it helped to lift the self-imposed silence that had prevented many JapaneseCanadians from confronting their past. Vancouver-based Kogawa’s new novel, The Rain Ascends, explores another hidden atrocity: the sexual abuse of children.
As a child growing up in Juniper, Alta., Millicent Shelby, the new book’s central character, enjoyed a favored existence. Her father, Anglican priest Charles Barnabas Shelby, was
the heart of the community, revered for his humane spirit and his work establishing Christian healing centres around the world. But one day, fellow clergy learned of Rev.
Shelby’s sexual predilection for children. At first, Millicent was protected from the truth.
Eventually, though, her correct, elegant mother explained her father’s affliction with two curt words—“sex” and “boys.”
The novel is set 40 years later when Millicent, middleaged and single, is living in a small British Columbia town with her widowed father, who has built a new congregation. Still struggling to address the magnitude of his transgressions, Millicent has never confronted him with the old secret.
The Rain Ascends unfolds as a dissertation
of sorts on the human capacity for both good and evil. Millicent wonders obsessively if her father’s sins outweigh a lifetime of Christian deeds. And Kogawa asks readers to ask themselves: “Suppose he were my father?” Undoubtedly, many would respond as unequivocally as the strident Eleanor, wife of Millicenfs brother, who plainly states: “There is no justification for what Father has done— he’s a moral monster.” But full-scale repudiation proves unfathomable for Millicent.
This story begins where most similar tales peak—with the revelation of an unspeakable horror. As the novel progresses, very little happens except in Millicent’s mind, as she slowly peels away the layers of self-deceit. At first, it is frustrating to read about her cowardice in dealing with the past. But eventually, Kogawa’s chronicle of Millicent’s struggle to both stare down the § truth and summon up mercy |for her father is rivetting. 2 Towards the end of The Rain Ascends, Kogawa gives way to a tendency to sermonize. But she should be forgiven, for in the process she forces contemplation of profound, if unpleasant, moral questions.
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