Want

By JoAnn McCaig

by Barbara Langhorst
Palimpsest Press
2018/$18.95/304 pp.

In this first novel by Edmonton-born poet Barbara Langhorst, Delphine and Hugo are living on their dream hobby farm in Saskatchewan, but something is missing. Delphine lusts after home improvement, and can’t resist poring over interior design magazines and websites. One day while browsing online, she orders a new kitchen by mistake. A complex plot unfurls involving marital and economic tension, mental illness, spiritual crisis and survivalism.

Langhorst has a wonderful sense of humour, and with delicious irony she shows how the couple’s perfect kitchen doesn’t end up bringing the happiness it promised. In fact, once their dream bistro is in place, Delphine and Hugo often end up eating out at places such as the local A&W “because as long as we didn’t cook, we didn’t have to clean, and the kitchen would remain in its state of pristine readiness.”

Flashbacks to Delphine’s childhood reveal a mother who had attempted to manage the vagaries of marriage and family life by manipulating the home environment through décor. Delphine has clearly inherited this trait, and her enthusiasm for paint colours such as Evening Sonata and Norwegian Fiord and “a dreamy new white called Bliss” show her faith in the redemptive power of interior decoration.

The novel also has an alternative storyline, in which Delphine’s renegade brother Paul arrives in the midst of the manic phase of a bipolar episode. Rather than enshrining consumerism as the road to bliss, Paul asserts that getting off the grid and becoming completely self-sufficient is the answer. And somewhat surprisingly, both Delphine and Hugo get drawn into this orbit as well, and begin planning to join Paul’s end-of-the-world commune.

The polarities of redemption through consumption and survival through renunciation contend and converge throughout the novel. For this reader, the opposing narratives sometimes seem hard to reconcile.

My wise old dad had a saying: There are no magic answers. And that seems to be the ultimate message of Want. At the novel’s conclusion, there’s a deus ex machina in the form of a financial windfall. Even though this results from an act of charity on Delphine’s part, it almost seems too neat a resolution for such a wide-ranging and complex tale.

But in the end this novel circles back to a simple truth. Home is not about perfect décor, nor is it about preparing a defence against the end of the world. It’s about family admiring the northern lights together, with open doors and open hearts.

JoAnn McCaig owns Shelf Life Books in Calgary; her new novel, An Honest Woman, comes out in fall 2019.

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