1149 Looking in the wrong place
Victoria Sees It
by Carrie Jenkins
Toronto: Penguin Random House (Strange Light), 2021
$24.95 / 9780771049279
Reviewed by Kathy Mezei
Victoria sees it, perhaps. And so perhaps will the reader, who is handed one of many clues to the novel’s mysteries on the very first page: “Seeing the world as it really is makes you crazy.” Thereafter unfolds the enigmatic narrative of Victoria from her troubled childhood in England to age 40, as a tenured full professor of philosophy in Seattle. Two voices narrate this novel, Victoria, in the first person past tense and her silent hospitalized mother, in the present tense and italics, which ominously emphasize her disturbed but perspicacious consciousness. It’s an oddly riveting narrative and mystery, one you might wish to read in a sitting, compulsively driven to peel away the layers of Victoria’s story and that of her catatonic mother.
As a gifted child, Victoria wins a scholarship to an academic boarding school, thus escaping her working-class background, her kindly but tediously conventional aunt who is not really her aunt, and her loutish uncle. Carrie Jenkins subtly inserts images and clues that gradually build a picture of Victoria’s “real” story: corridors, mirrors, ghosts, straight lines and circles, alchemy, the occult, time-space, and the fifth dimension. Jenkins also skillfully reveals incidents that Carrie describes but whose significance the child does not grasp and which the reader understands with some trepidation. Like Victoria’s favourite detectives, Sherlock Holmes, Miss Marple, and Hercule Poirot, the reader is placed in the position of deciphering clues and countering deft sleights of hand, misdirection, and illusions. Victoria cherishes Agatha Christie’s Endless Night, which features an unreliable and immoral narrator, and in which the reference to lines from William Blake’s “Auguries of Innocence” are prescient: “Some are Born to sweet delight/ Some are Born to sweet delight/ Some are Born to Endless Night.” As Victoria remarks, quoting one of her professors, “The reason we prefer fiction to reality is that fictional characters make sense” (p. 112).
Academically brilliant, Victoria gains entrance to Cambridge, to Trinity College, Isaac Newton’s alma mater, and, eventually, seemingly effortlessly she obtains a doctorate in philosophy. Jenkins’ shrewd descriptions of the charms and traditions of Cambridge are tinged with the shadows and constraints of a closed and ancient community. Solitary and introverted, with unnamed psychological baggage, Victoria makes one very intimate friend, Deb, who one day inexplicably disappears. Hence the mystery. Where has Deb gone and why does no one acknowledge her disappearance? Is there some terrible conspiracy? A secret to be decoded? Victoria then meets “The Cop,” a Cambridge female police offer, who offers what turn out to be red herrings, but also a love affair.
Are the two playing roles in a detective story? An uncanny aura continues to surround Victoria, her futile search and her obsessive, secretive accumulation of odd tokens. While the description of Victoria’s time in Cambridge is authentic, I wonder if she, so withdrawn and socially awkward and detached, could have achieved such stellar academic results in philosophy, including being invited into a secret society, the “Eleven” (the infamous Apostles which included many of the Bloomsbury Group). But then again, Jenkins seems to suggest that we have multiple personalities, and that the inner being is often hidden from the face others see.
Victoria proceeds to achieve academic success, travelling further and further west, away from Cambridge, finally ending up at the university in Seattle, where she begins to disintegrate seriously. Here we encounter the miasma of mental illness treatment as Victoria seeks to escape her demons: therapy, psychiatry, medication, hypnosis. Victoria’s uncanny auras materialize into migraine auras. We also enter into the miasma of gender biased academia as Victoria struggles with the battles and power plays that characterize department life, especially if one is a woman in a field dominated by men, middle-aged white men. Yet apparently she is an effective teacher and administrator and renowned in her specialty. Again is this possible? As she tells us, “My career is considered to have gone brilliantly. Cambridge plays especially well in America. Even sounding English makes people think you are clever. And evil, of course, but that helps, too (p. 177). The insight about sounding English is one of the delights of Jenkins’ wry prose. Her unique lyrical touch surfaces in phrases such as “Her hair was all the My Little Ponies I never had: dead straight, pure blonde” (p. 32).
I found the Seattle portion of the novel less gripping than the earlier sections perhaps because Victoria delves deeper into lengthy philosophical and esoteric thoughts, which, while indicative of her unravelling, nevertheless are less compelling than the cryptic remarks and acts we encountered earlier. Does she really, in the tradition of her favourite detectives, see more clearly, understand what everyone else misses? Does her mother? She reminds us, in the guise of discussing magicians, “They make sure you’re looking in the wrong place at the crucial moment” (p. 231). As the novel comes to an end, Victoria once again encounters The Cop and a few threads are apparently tied up; Deb too makes an appearance. Or does she? Does it matter?
Perhaps, because of my connections with Cambridge, my own career as an academic in the days when there were few senior women professors, and, like Victoria, coming from a long line of women with migraines, I felt a strong affinity with this very clever novel. However, why not locate it in Vancouver and at the University of British Columbia where Jenkins now teaches? Is the Seattle setting meant to attract American readers?
Victoria Sees It is a tightly woven, arresting narrative about sensitive and pertinent subjects, entwined with reverberating haunting images. Pay attention when you read it; you will be, like the narrator, “always on the verge of seeing something” (p. 201).
Kathy Mezei is Professor Emerita, Humanities Department, SFU; Life Member, Clare Hall, Cambridge and lives in Burnaby. She has published on Canadian literature, life-writing, Canadian women writers, translation studies, comparative Canadian and Quebec literature, domestic space, and modern British women writers. She is one of the co-founders of the feminist journal, Tessera. Her most recent publication is Living with Strangers: Bedsits and Boarding Houses in Modern English Life, Literature and Film (Bloomsbury 2018), co-edited with Chiara Briganti. Editor’s note: Kathy Mezei has also reviewed books by Lorna Crozier and Rebecca Wigod for The Ormsby Review.
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The Ormsby Review is a journal service for in-depth coverage of B.C. books and authors. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Robin Fisher, Cole Harris, Wade Davis, Hugh Johnston, Patricia Roy, and Graeme Wynn. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Provincial Government Patron since September 2018: Creative BC
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 Carrie Jenkins earned a D. Phil in Philosophy from Cambridge University, a Masters in Fine Arts, in Creative Writing at UBC and currently holds a Canada Research Chair in Philosophy at UBC.