"Change one thing. The sanctioned family memory, even the police report, states that the gun went off by accident. I know better." With these intriguing opening lines Loranne Brown sets the pace for her exceptional debut novel, The Handless Maiden (Doubleday Canada, 417 pages, $32.95 cloth).
The story begins in Thunder Bay, Ontario, where Mariah Standhoffer, her younger brother, Luke, and their parents move in with the widowed Lucas Standhoffer, Mariah's grandfather. His house is "three storeys, neo-Victorian, complete with tower room and gingerbread trim." It is a house large enough to hold its secrets, including Lucas's sexual abuse of his granddaughter, which begins when she is eight and continues for nine years. Mariah, having learned at a very young age that even small actions often have large consequences, is terrified of causing turmoil in her family and therefore says nothing. It is one of the book's many ironies that her parents, both of them loving, moral, and supportive, think they are shielding her from life's dangers and don't realize the horrors unfolding regularly under their own roof.
The abuse stops only when Mariah, literally, takes matters into her own hands: "While changing the sheets on her parents' bed, Mariah Standhoffer, age 17, was assaulted by her grandfather, Lucas Standhoffer, age 73. She somehow retrieved the revolver her father always kept tucked between the box spring and the mattress. While brandishing the weapon, she shrieked, `If you ever touch me again, I'll kill you.' A struggle for the weapon ensued and the pistol was discharged at close range, shattering her right hand, which, despite extensive bone and skin grafts, was subsequently amputated at the wrist."
The reverberations of this incident are numerous and profound. Mariah's career as a concert pianist is over almost before it begins. Instead, she becomes a composer, mining the music that was within her all along. Her relationships with her mother (to whom she reveals the abuse) and with her father (to whom she does not) are altered. The event also affects, in various ways, her role in what ends up being a love triangle: Mariah and the two men, Sully and Doug, who want to marry her. But the most significant effect is on Mariah herself: her perceptions, her self-image, her struggle to answer the unanswerable question, "Did I do it on purpose?"
Unnerving as a honed razor, The Handless Maiden is a fiercely beautiful book, a chronicle of a harrowing journey from childhood to adulthood. It is not without flaws (Sully is almost too saintly to be believed, for instance) but they pale in comparison to its greatest strength: Mariah Standhoffer. Brown has created a fascinating character, so intense, psychologically astute, articulate, and insightful that the sheer force of her personality compels you to keep reading-and you're not likely to forget her once you close the book. Eva Tihanyi (Books in Canada) --This text refers to the Paperback edition.