What might have happened

The Uses of Enchantment
by Heidi Julavits

Once again this is a book I read about on a book blog and liked the sound of but can no longer where it was I read about it. I must come up with a better system! But more to the point, was I right that it was my sort of book? Well, yes and no.

I have never studied psychology or psychoanalysis, nor have I any strong interest in it, but it seems to crop up so often in my reading that I’m beginning to think I should take a course or something. This book picks apart the psyche so thoroughly there is no clear line between the “real” of the story and the imagined. Which is the whole point. I think. That and something about teenage girls and sexuality.

Mary disappeared for a few weeks when she was 16 years old. At first she said she could not remember what happened, though she thinks that she had been kidnapped and sexually abused. Months later, following analysis, she agreed with her psychologist that she had made it all up, and subsequently became a minor local celebrity. Years later she returns to the family home in a Boston suburb for her mother’s funeral and finally faces up to the family tensions that she has been hiding from. But which version of the past is true? Does she even know herself?

If her psychologist is right, Mary is precociously bright, though she has managed to hide it from everyone else. Woven into her changing stories are details from Freud’s Dora, from the case of Bettina Spencer – another girl from her prep school who disappeared under similar circumstances years earlier – and witches condemned to death in nearby Salem. She certainly has issues related to her distant, Puritanical mother and her own sexual urges, but is she in control of what she is doing in response to those issues? Is this all, as she claims at one point, a highly original method of completing a school assignment on Dora?

The story is told in three threads – the present day, starting with Mary’s mother’s funeral, the notes of her first psychologist, Dr Hammer, and a series of chapters titled “What might have happened”. Details from one thread crop up again in another in a way that doesn’t make sense unless at least one of these threads isn’t the whole truth.

It’s a fascinating premise and told well enough to keep me reading hungrily, but there was something awry. The language made me disengage at times. Julavits is one of those writers who use a lot of unusual words. Perhaps they are the most precisely correct word but using a word that is not in common usage will make most readers stumble, I think. There was also a slightly troubling treatment of teenage girls who claim sexual abuse and psychologists who help them – not exactly mockery or disbelief, but a definite hint that teenage girls will lie about such things given the chance and adults should know better than to believe them. But perhaps I have misinterpreted on that point. Perhaps it is more of a statement about uptight New England rich white people and their attitudes to sex. Certainly Mary says more than once that her mother wants desperately for her to be proved a liar because she would rather have a liar for a daughter than a rape victim.

I think maybe my difficulty with truly enjoying this book is that it touches on some big issues but, for all its deep knowledge of psychoanalysis, it doesn’t feel like it really truly explored those issues. All I feel I have explored is the human (and in particular the teenage girl’s) capacity to imagine.

There were some touches that I loved. Speech marks were only used in the present day sections of the book, and not in all of those. Was that a clue to what was real? There are some objects discovered early on in the present day narrative that seem significant but do not get their reveal until near the end of the book, and it took me a moment to notice the key difference between the two versions of the objects. If trustworthy, this difference is a clue to the truth. Or to part of the truth.

First published 2006 by Anchor Books.