Brecht Resurrected in Toronto: Sarah Sheard’s Krank

krankReviewed in this essay: Krank: Love in the New Dark Times, by Sarah Sheard (Seraphim Editions, 2012)

Gestalt therapist Ainsley Giddings just wants a sabbatical year free of entanglements to write her book. The protagonist of Toronto writer Sarah Sheard’s fourth novel – her first in over a decade – has recently left a difficult and draining all-but-legal ten-year marriage to Dan, “A man in search of compensation for some unmentionable past grievance, a man who fell into bed each night, disappointed with the day.” As a therapist, Ainsley recognizes, if not quite understands, her own troublesome need to rescue and nurture broken men and frequently berates herself for having allowed the demands of her relationship with Dan to override her own activities and projects for years.

Now alone, and having leased a cottage on Toronto’s Ward’s Island for a year to write, Ainsley is attempting to explicate for her readers, from a more contemporary perspective, the practice of Gestalt therapy, developed in the 1940s. Of particular and ultimately personal significance to Ainsley is determining how to explain founder Fritz Perls’s belief that, “The idea of Gestalt therapy is to change paper people into real people.” What does it mean to be a paper person? How does one become real? Ainsley will soon find out.

Despite her best intentions, she finds her new freedom from romantic and professional obligations cut short by the untimely intrusion of lust and politics.

Bertolt Brecht, the German playwright who died in Berlin in 1956, has mysteriously come back to life in the Toronto of 2009. Ainsley first encounters the strange man on the Toronto Island ferry, and, rather surprisingly for someone who works to help others with mental and emotional disturbances, quickly accepts Brecht’s unlikely story. Giving in to temptation, she is drawn under his influence: “Although nothing catastrophic had happened to the essential workings of her mind, she could feel a fog of preoccupation with Brecht now advancing across the activities of her day.”

The two become lovers, and Ainsley is consumed by the passion – so favourably different from her experience with Dan – that develops between them. On top of this carnal distraction, Ainsley becomes embroiled in the political machinations of her friend Eleanor and other Toronto Islanders railing against the expansion of the Toronto Island airport. Add to this a shocking and violent encounter with police brutality at a financial summit in the city (a thinly veiled and scathing commentary on the controversial and under-acknowledged events of the 2010 G20 Summit that rocked Toronto the Good in the summer of that year), and Ainsley’s hopes of a quiet, productive sabbatical are finally dashed. All, however, is far from lost.

With its elements of magical realism, Krank is beguiling as an unorthodox love story, but its real impact is as a narrative of one woman’s journey toward her self. Similar to Sheard’s fictional Toronto during a rare moment of political upheaval, Ainsley, used to being the dependable therapist, partner, and friend, is uncharacteristically struggling with uncertainty and change. Despite her desire to establish order in her life by escaping the outside world and hiding in her cottage, she is compelled, through her relationship with Brecht and the tumult of her city, to confront the reality of what is happening around and inside her.

By the end of the novel, Ainsley and Brecht have travelled to Berlin where their uncommon journey predictably comes to an end with Brecht’s disappearance. What began with what seemed to be a second chance at life for Brecht ends with a second chance at living for Ainsley.

Regardless of whether Brecht really did magically resurrect, or was merely and more likely a fabrication of Ainsley’s vulnerable mind, he “set her paper heart on fire,” leaving the reader with the sense that Ainsley has found her footing and her depth again as an independent woman. Perhaps she has finally figured out how to be real.