Truth can hurt, even in a beautiful way

By  Fr. Gilles Mongeau, S.J., Catholic Register Special
  • May 28, 2009
{mosimage}Perfecting by Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer (Goose Lane, hardcover, 360 pages, $22.95)

Classical and medieval writers on esthetics believed that what made a work of art good was — at least in significant part — its proportion to the subject matter, its “trueness” to even an ugly topic. A true and proportionate image of the ugly can be beautiful because it shows forth the subject in a way that strips away ambiguities or irrelevant details that cloud the issue.

Perfecting, by Canadian author Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer, is beautiful and good in this way. Some will find their religious sensibilities challenged by the unvarnished portrayal of the destructiveness of belief, thinking that perhaps the author has an anti-Christian or anti-religious agenda.

{sa 0864925158}There are discussions of sex and sexuality that will offend others. But a reading that does not move beyond Kuitenbrouwer’s frank and well-crafted depictions of distorted faith and wounded human sexuality would be superficial and would not do the novel justice. These elements of the novel are a powerful means to a good and beautiful, though difficult, end.

The novel opens with Martha’s quest to understand the founder of the Family, the spiritual community to which she belongs. She has travelled from eastern Ontario to New Mexico, to the place of the founder’s birth and growing up. As she encounters members of his biological family, she sets in motion a process of revelation that leads ultimately to a series of violent deaths, including that of Curtis, founder of the Family. Along the way, we retrace the contagious spread of distorted loving from one generation to the next, from one family to the next.

Kuitenbrouwer treats us to the vision of a pelagian hell born from seeking perfection by human effort alone. Perfecting is St. Augustine’s worst nightmare come true. In the end, there is no resolution, no saving grace, only the bloody aftermath of revenge and unlove. We do not know how the surviving characters live on. Their fate is undetermined.

The writing is excellent. The portrayals of both characters and landscape are rich and evocative. Kuitenbrouwer is a keen observer of the human psyche and spirit. She makes real and present some difficult spiritual truths with the trueness that is the hallmark of a skilled artisan. And because it is beautiful and good in this fashion, the novel pushes us to confront our own ungraced self-reliance — the ways in which our efforts to save ourselves by ourselves wreak havoc on the lives of others.

This is a good book. It is not light entertainment. It is a richly rewarding read nonetheless.

(Mongeau teaches theology at Regis College in Toronto.)

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