THE BISHOP by David Helwig


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Prolific Canadian writer Helwig (The Only Son, 1984; Jennifer, 1983) forsakes his usual tangled plotting for a wispy tale of a dying bishop's memories. Anglican Bishop Henry Wade lies speechless and half-paralyzed from a stroke, as his loyal secretary Rose stands guard over him. Henry has been a widower for 40 years, since his wife Amelia killed herself by walking into a blizzard in the Arctic North where Henry was a missionary. Most of his memories revolve around the shadowy Amelia: their enraptured first meeting and later estrangement when Amelia took a lover, Wilf. The novel's key passage describes a chance meeting between cuckold and lover dining London's Blitz in 1941 (after Amelia's death). Wilf tells Henry he was ""too perfect"" for Amelia, but admits the courage to detach her from him; the overall impression is of a woman lost and unreachable. While most of the novel is flashback, there is one notable occurrence at Henry's deathbed--the arrival of Ishakak, bearing the dubious gift of Amelia's skull. This old Eskimo shaman, whose presence comforts Henry, reveals that after Amelia's disappearance he had shared his wile with Henry, who had a son by her. The novel closes with Henry's funeral. Helwig has gone from overplotting to underplotting. We get little sense of the texture of Henry's life, for huge chunks of it (like his move up the ecclesiastical ladder) are missing, and what's here is unsatisfying, given the meager characterizations of Amelia and Wilt', and the failure to exploit Ishakak's belated bombshell. Matters aren't helped any by constant viewpoint switches to the dreary Rose, and occasional clumsy forays into the consciousness of Norman, a retard holed up in the cathedral's basement. Once again this versatile writer has sold himself short.

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 1986
Publisher: Viking