The Rowing Lesson
Anne Landsman
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Buy *The Rowing Lesson* by Anne Landsmanonline

The Rowing Lesson
Anne Landsman
Soho Press
288 pages
November 2007
rated 3 of 5 possible stars

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With curious and often breathtaking imagery, a woman takes a last journey into the mind of her larger-than-life father. As peculiar dream sequences take the place of storytelling, past and present swirl together like the lagoon waters of George, South Africa.

Past forty and pregnant with her first child, Betsy Klein joins her family at the deathbed of her father, now in a coma. An overwhelming presence in their lives, all are bewildered that the man known among many Africaans as ďDoktor GodĒ is actually dying. In addition to her own recent and childhood recollections, Betsy vicariously lives in her fatherís memories as a child, medical student, and young suitor and husband.

Instead of a moving tribute to a highly regarded and beloved man, it is quickly apparent that something is terribly wrong with young Harold. Objectification and disregard of others along with grandiose beliefs of himself hint at a forming pathological nature. Fearful squabbles within his dysfunctional family parallel Betsyís own childhood.

Betsyís imaginary projection into her fatherís sexual life is pretty creepy but reflects the lack of personal boundaries she is given growing up. Several times she is subjected to unnecessary and embarrassing medical procedures. When she plucks her eyebrows in a harmless teenage rite of passage, her manic mother insists she has a rare psychological disorder. She brings Betsy to Harold, who surprisingly goes along with this amateur diagnosis and proceeds to give his daughter an invasive and humiliating barium enema. Physical violence is also the norm. When she is caught drinking a glass of wine, her father shakes her so violently that she falls and is almost knocked unconscious.

Presumably a misogynist from the beginning, Harold sees every female, including his own sister, as a sexual object. The unusual presence of a brilliant young woman at medical school causes him much angst, first of a sexual nature then envy as she rises past him to become a professor of medicine. Harold also hates his brother, Bertie, who enters the medical field and has tremendous success as a cardiologist. In contrast, this good man appears at several deathbed scenes to offer both his services and those of several specialists. The fact is that Harold never becomes much of a success, though he indoctrinates his family and his poor patients into believing he is.

Interpretations of Haroldís childhood memories are difficult. Even with frail personal boundaries, it seems highly unlikely he revealed such specific sexual details to his daughter. It is more reasonable to believe Betsy created them in order to work out her own issues, which become increasingly alarming as Harold emerges as an angry narcissist.

Because Betsy is so enmeshed in this manís life, it is a challenging read. Her journey becomes the readerís journey, and it is not a pleasant one. Landsmanís baffling imagery usually involves a dark or vulgar aspect, even when describing the beautiful scenes of South Africa. Many involve blood or, more specifically, dirty blood. Characters are introduced and dropped with no explanation of who they are. Disturbing domestic disputes and subsequent violence are not condemned but rather treated as a commonplace occurrence.

At one point, Betsy is shocked at the sudden realization that Harold will never see his grandchild. This knowledge produces no emotion, as life without this powerful, charismatic figure is almost impossible to fathom. Personally, I think missing the experience of Doktor God is a blessing.

This is Anne Landsmanís second novel. The Devilís Chimney was nominated for four awards, including the PEN/Hemingway Award for a distinguished first book of fiction.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Jaimie Bell, 2007

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