Wayne Johnston
Wayne Johnston

A Review of Wayne Johnston’s “The Mystery of Right and Wrong”

“The Mystery of Right and Wrong” Book Cover

Wayne Johnston is something of a national treasure in Canadian literature. He is, perhaps, most famous for writing historical novels that feature Newfoundland as a prominent setting. However, his new book, The Mystery of Right and Wrong, marks a bit of a turn. While some of it is set in Newfoundland, a lot of it is set in Cape Town, South Africa. It is also a thinly-veiled fictitious memoir of life with his wife’s family. It turns out — according to the author’s note at the back — that a lot of this novel is real in some way, and the book exposes very dark family secrets that might bear the adage of the truth being stranger than fiction. For that reason, I’m almost hesitant to pen a review. This is clearly a book that Johnston wanted to write to expose the darkness in his own extended family, but I wonder if the finished product might wind up hurting people more than helping. That’s all I feel I can say on that matter for now, not only to not spoil the novel but also to be respectful of some of the lives that will be impacted by the publication of this book. This is not an easy read to digest, so I’ll try to pretend here, for the most part, that this is just another ordinary novel with no ties to reality.

The Mystery of Right and Wrong is set in the mid-‘80s and is largely told from the viewpoints of two narrators: Wade, an aspiring writer, and Rachel, the young woman he falls in love with while working as a newspaper reporter in St. John’s. Rachel has moved to St. John’s with her family from South Africa and has a sort of mental illness that compels her to write in a diary in a secret, made-up language. That diary is presented in the text (mostly in English, not the invented language), along with the writing of her father Hans, as a combination of rhyming poetry and prose. In any event, Wade and Rachel wind up moving to Cape Town with her family (her parents and three other sisters) a couple of years after they meet, and that’s when Rachel’s weird but otherwise seemingly idyllic family really starts to unravel. Incidentally, Rachel is infatuated with The Diary of Anne Frank, so much so that she gives Jeff Mangum a run for his money. (Neutral Milk Hotel fans will have some idea what I’m talking about.) In any event, through a combination of prose and poetry, and shifting point-of-views, family secrets begin to untangle like skin being peeled off an onion.

I must admit that I’m on the fence with The Mystery of Right and Wrong, not only because of the painful truths that this novel excavates. On one hand, the prose sections are well done, and the novel is readable during these sections as they propel the plot forward. It’s also good that the novel presents people living with addictions and mental illnesses as real and powerful — aside from Rachel’s form of obsessive-compulsive disorder, her sisters suffer from either sex addiction, anorexia, or drug abuse. I was glad to see characters who were flawed and had serious problems be given a lot of pages to explore the roots of these disorders. And the book can be thrilling in a chilling sort of way, but to say more would risk giving away parts of the novel. The Mystery of Right and Wrong is best read as though you knew nothing of the author’s circumstances. If you plan on reading it, you might want to just stop reading about the book and just experience it, as this is an experience that is probably best served (if you come to it) cold.

However, one of the major problems I had with the read was with the rhyming poetry. On one hand, it’s kind of necessary so you can know what’s going on in Hans’ and Rachel’s minds that remain secretive to the other characters. On the other hand, a lot of it is juvenile puff — which may be the point because Hans isn’t much of a writer, and Rachel isn’t much of one either, even though she has filled up many of her diaries in her made-up language and has put so many marginal notes into various copies of Anne Frank’s diary as to make those books illegible. Still, the poetry comes off as cloying — and it’s clear that the author has trouble with coming up with things other than lazy rhymes because some of the poetry will, on a dime, switch over to prose and then go back again as it suits Johnston’s needs. Perhaps the book would have been better if it just stuck with the prose, which is the author’s key strength.

The other thing that burdens this book is that there’s a lot of Anne Frank in it. Don’t get me wrong, Anne Frank is an important historical figure who sheds light on the horrors of the Holocaust. However, I’ve never gone out and read her work because I figure that knowing how she died makes her output feel depressing, no matter how relatively optimistic she may have been about being rescued by the Allies she was while writing her diary. And so, we get pages and pages of Rachel imagining that she’s being haunted in a secret world of her own by Frank. It’s exhausting to read, and, to be honest, not very interesting. I can say that because this novel is more than 500 pages long if some of the material about Rachel’s infatuation with Anne Frank was left on the cutting room floor, the better and more interesting The Mystery of Right and Wrong would be. And, honestly, Rachel’s fascination with Frank doesn’t go anywhere — though a reason for it is provided by the end of the novel.

However, it’s the fact that much of what’s in these pages is the truth is that bothers me. I find it a bit ghoulish for a writer to expose skeletons in his extended family’s closet when the crux of it isn’t about him. However, Johnston’s family isn’t the ones I think might be hurt by this. For reasons of not explaining too much of the plot or story, I worry about people who were impacted by a member of Johnston’s wife’s family might find it rich that the author is profiting off someone else’s dark and criminal behaviour. I must wonder why Johnston didn’t go to the police with the information he knew about at a time when it mattered, rather than write about it some 25 years after the fact (which is how long Johnston has been holding onto this secret) when the key players have passed on. For that reason, The Mystery of Right and Wrong is a hard book for me to stomach. I think the motivations for sharing this book with the general public — that is, to earn a livelihood from its writing — are all wrong.

Still, if you can take this book as a sort of autobiography of family secrets that are fictionalized, you might be able to enjoy it for what it’s worth. It’s overlong and self-indulgent, but there are some charitable things to say about this volume. The real mystery is why this book is being shared with fans as entertainment, one that might have the families of those victimized by a monster wondering why these secrets are being revealed in this form. While I did enjoy parts of the book, I felt — at the end of the day — that maybe this was a book better off being unpublished and being for the author’s eyes alone due to its shocking revelations about a possible real-life murderer who should have seen justice rather than being something to profit from. At best, The Mystery of Right and Wrong was a mixed bag for me to be sure, and a huge question mark as to why this is being published when an even-handed non-fiction book might have been more respectful.

Wayne Johnston’s The Mystery of Right and Wrong will be published by Knopf Canada on September 21, 2021.

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Get in touch: zacharyhoule@rogers.com

Book critic, Fiction author, Poet, Writer, Editor. Follow me on Twitter @zachary_houle.