It’s an odd experience, reading a novel about apocalyptic fears during a pandemic. A few chapters into Want, the debut novel by Saskatchewan writer Barbara Langhorst, the narrator’s brother launches into an impassioned rant about the dangers of the current world. “‘All types of things you need to stock up on—NOW—we have to be ready,’” Paul said. “‘No telling when we might have a solar flare or a pandemic or some terror attack. . . . The signs, signs everywhere. Just need to read ‘em’” (43). Want was published in 2018, and the words are eerily prescient in the time of COVID-19.
The brother, Paul, is suffering from one of his recurring episodes of manic behaviour and this isn’t the only source of stress for the first-person narrator, Delphine. She has just ordered an expensive kitchen renovation without discussing the purchase with her husband, she suffers from angina, and she is haunted by the voice of her dead friend, the monk Fr. Lewis, a spiritual mentor who advises her to “just stop looking at the pictures” (177). Fr. Lewis’s warning is about the enticing glamour of home renovation, but other obstacles block Delphine from finding peace. As her co-worker reminds her, “‘Remember what it means to want, to be found wanting’” (240).
In Want, Langhorst explores what it means to want, not only in terms of material possessions, such as a new kitchen, but also family connections. Delphine and her siblings, Emma and Paul, spend much of the novel reminiscing about their past: their grandparents, who homesteaded in northern Saskatchewan, and their mother, who died when Delphine was nineteen. Paul wants the family to escape civilization and resettle on the grandparents’ land; Delphine waffles between staying in a home she loves, despite its flaws, or agreeing to Paul’s vision of the family reunited, living on a back-to-the-land compound.
Paul’s visions of escape may be a side effect of his mental illness. Paul was diagnosed with bipolar disorder as a young man, but his sister only discovers this secret years later. Recurring episodes have left her trying to understand her brother’s symptoms, which she researches on the internet: “Patients exhibit an inflated ego during manic or hypomanic phases. Racing thoughts cause pressured speech, rhyming, possibly confusion, and some patients may have auditory or visual hallucinations. Grand schemes, impulsiveness and spending sprees are common. Patients may be secretive and sleep less than usual. Stress seems to be a trigger” (87).
When Paul shows up at Delphine and Hugo’s house, apparently in the throes of another breakdown, his apocalyptic anxieties trigger Delphine’s own emotional and spiritual distress.
The cover illustration shows a one-story house nestled among a stand of trees, and Langhorst plays with many versions of the word home and what home means in the modern world. The novel articulates how a person’s need for security may translate into the desire for the perfectly designed space, whether it was Delphine’s mother, who kept the house “stylish and chic, immaculate” (11), or Delphine, who honours her husband’s Swedish heritage by decorating a room with “serene gray-green” walls and “calm black-and-white prints of Swedish sailing ships that leaned on the picture rail, markers of a simpler time” (45). The serene simplicity of the room contrasts with Delphine’s chaotic fears and jumbled thoughts. Langhorst excels at portraying beautiful rooms: Delphine’s remodeled bistro kitchen has an island panelled in “rich walnut” and “a backsplash of pale marble tiles rippled in a herringbone pattern” (34); the house Paul wants to buy has walls painted in “a soothing pale colour” and “wide plank floors [that] shone white in the sun” (107).
Want is a challenging read. Spending time inside Delphine’s head can be exhausting, especially when her anxieties overwhelm her. The dialogue occasionally seems forced, resembling a philosophical discussion rather than authentic conversation. When Delphine tells Nasrin, her doctor, about her own symptoms, Nasrin responds, “‘You might be suffering from what Buddhists would call attachment. Or perhaps you are in the throes of a metamorphosis. But remember Kafka!’” (135). Would a physician really have the time for a discussion about Buddhism and Kafka?
These minor flaws do not detract from the serious issues that the novel raises. Ultimately, what does it mean to want? Want explores what we all desire: a place to belong.
By Barbara Langhorst
Palimpsest Press, 2018, Paperbound, 245 pp., $18.85 (print)
Kat Cameron lives in Edmonton on Treaty 6 territory. Her poetry collections include Ghosts Still Linger and Strange Labyrinth. Her short story collection The Eater of Dreams was shortlisted for the Danuta Gleed Literary Award. “Dancing the Requiem,” a story from this collection, won Prairie Fire’s 2018 fiction contest. She teaches creative writing at Concordia University of Edmonton.