Grey Matter

Ondine’s Curse

By Maria Simpson

A review of Ondine's Curse by Steven Manners

Published on October 1, 2000

Ondine’s Curse
Steven Manners

Porcepic Books/Beach Holme
$18.95
paperback
200pp
0-88878-409-0

Steven Manners’ debut novel is a complex, layered work that examines the murky world of psychiatry and pathology in contemporary Montreal. The story follows Robert Strasser, a television documentary producer making a film about German-born scientist Werther Acheson, founder of a controversial psychiatric institute. He hopes to make Acheson’s life into a viewer-friendly linear narrative: the early years, struggle, and triumph. As Strasser interviews his subject he uncovers Acheson’s dark and disturbing experiments that stem from his need to make all people the same because, as he believes, “the individual personality is a pathology.”

As his work progresses, Strasser becomes increasingly fascinated with Ondine, one of the patients at the institute. Ondine is plagued by panic attacks and depression, the result of her witnessing the 1989 Montreal Massacre, in which 14 women were slain. More than ten years later, Ondine is still a student, deeply immersed in historical research. Her attempts to impose order on the past are less an academic pursuit than a means of understanding the irrational violence she has seen.

Manners further complicates the story with a slew of other personae, each with a flush hand of perversions and traumas. Dr. Kotzwara studies the link between sex and aggression both in the institute’s lab and the city’s underground and leather bars, while Mary P, a patient from Acheson’s past, is slowly brainwashed until she has absorbed all of his personality traits. Adolf Hitler also makes an incongruous appearance in a particularly lurid flashback. The characters seek order through drugs, psychics, sex, and love. Manners treats psychiatry as an almost mythological venture into the human mind.

Ondine’s Curse travels back and forth through time, often blurring the line between past and present. This is particularly effective in sections such as a scene in which therapy is juxtaposed with flashbacks to World War II as panic attack victims are taken to a mall. Manners also successfully paints Montreal as a mythical landscape, and the tension between the scientific and fantastic elements is delicate but usually effective. His sharp, cinematic style can also be hauntingly evocative:

We are darkness waiting for someone to illuminate a story, there on the wall in images writ large. We want problems with solutions, beginnings with ends. The content is almost irrelevant; our need is large.

The broad scope of the book is at times over-reaching, however, as if Manners felt he had only one opportunity to get all the issues he’d been stewing about off his chest. Some of the characters are underdeveloped or superfluous, and the layers of metaphor can become obscure and ponderous. Rats are a frequent motif: they infest, they attack, they are the subject of sexual fantasies, they are used in research, they watch. While they certainly contribute to the disturbing underworld tone of the book, the rats’ deeper import is lost due to so many significations.

Manners tackles a wide spectrum of trendy literary themes: violence, media, drugs. What sets Ondine’s Curse apart from the regular postmodern dross is its handling of the ways people look for and construct meaning. To read this book is to enter the labyrinthine corridors of the mind, but not without a light to guide you. mRb

Maria Simpson is a Montreal writer and production manager for a children's press.

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