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Canadian poet-novelist Helwig, unfamiliar in the US, has written a series of fictions set in Kingston, Ontario--and this, the first to appear here, involves an assortment of romantic/sexual strains among some friends and acquaintances at a summer-island vacation spot near the city. The central triangle: happily married lawyer Wayne Burtch; his earthy, easygoing wife Jane; and poet Elizabeth, recently returned from a lesbian affair in England, who (despite her proclamations of celibacy) stirs up Wayne's lust and Jane's jealousy when she occupies a cabin near the Burtch summer cottage. Also stirred up by Elizabeth's return to Canada: Robert, her old flame, who's been terribly depressed since his divorce and his forced retirement (at 50) from editorship of a university press. But Elizabeth only seems to toy with Robert's potential devotion (they discuss the Gnostics and Manichees instead of making love), while a more uncomplicated sort of relationship is embodied in the happy lust/love of Robert's young daughter Cindy--who has come out of a bad spell through her infatuation with artist Paul. Finally, then, the frustrations of the older folk simmer to a boil. And, during a climactic picnic, there's a carefully prepared but awfully contrived (Helwig has read his Lawrence, Woolf, and others) series of eruptions: a lesbian release of tension between those overdrawn opposites, earthy Jane and airy Elizabeth; a semi-symbolic storm; and, weakest of all, a smear of psycho-violence--perpetrated by lawyer Wayne's crazed enemy (the husband of Wayne's recent divorce client) but supposedly the inevitable outcome of all this sexual stewing. As a novel, then, this is fragmented, academic fare, with short-story material stretched out rather too thin. Individual moments, however, demonstrate clear talent--the ironic dinner-table talk, the prose-poet summer-island evocations, a few genuinely erotic encounters--and Helwig's other work might be worth exploring, especially if it's more naturally shaped and more firmly focused.

Pub Date: Aug. 10th, 1982
Publisher: Beaufort--dist. by Scribners