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Barbara Gowdy: Mister Sandman

Another seemingly-normal-but-actually-quirky-family-with-a-child-with-a-physical-impairment-which-makes-her-special novel. We start off with a family of four. There is the father, Gordon Canary, editor for a publisher of trashy novels, and gay. The love of his life is the red-haired Al Yothers. His wife Doris is also gay, with a particular fancy for black women. Neither knows that the other is gay though Doris suspects. Their oldest daughter is Sonja. In her fifteen years of life maybe ten minutes had been devoted to thinking about sex and another minute or so to having it. She had sort of been raped (probably by Al Yothers as we later find out) though she had not refused. There are two results to this. The first is Joan and the second is that Sonja puts on and keeps on 100 pounds. The fourth member of the family is the youngest daughter, Marcy, who also starts off gay. She fancies her babysitter and her greatest pleasure is stroking the babysitter’s breast. However, she later becomes promiscuously heterosexual, finding a need to always have three boyfriends at the same time, on whom she showers gifts.

But, though she does not dominate the book, it is really about Joan. When she discovers that Sonja is pregnant, her mother takes her away to have the baby and pretends that she, Doris, is the mother so that everyone, including Marcy, thinks of Joan as the sister of Sonja and Marcy rather than, respectively, the daughter and niece. When Joan is born (in an old people’s home), she apparently cries out Oh no, not again, the last words of the old lady who occupied the room her mother and grandmother are now occupying. The old lady attending the birth is so shocked that she grabs the umbilical cord and yanks Joan on the floor where she strikes her head. The result is an injury that leaves Joan’s growth stunted, leaves her unable (or, perhaps, unwilling) to speak but with an incredible gift for sound. This gift means that she can distinguish even distant sounds and, when still very young, plays a Mozart piece on the piano first time, despite the fact that she has never played the piano before.

Joan is the cipher around which all the family revolves. Because she does not speak and hides out in the closet, the family is often not aware of her presence. What she does – though we (and the family) are barely aware of this till the end of the novel – is, influenced by the work of one David Rayne, to record various sounds, particularly conversations, and then put them together on two tapes which have to be played simultaneously on two separate tape recorders. This seems to take several years. When she completes it – at age eighteen – she seemingly lies down to die. While she is in hospital, the family finds the tapes, plays them and finds out the various truths about one another (Marcy’s promiscuity, her parents’ homosexuality).

This is merely a brief outline of the plot but none of it explains the charm of this book. Joan is a wonderful creation. Though we rarely see things directly from her point of view, we do get a good idea of what makes her tick and how she is perfectly content inside her hermetic world (she never leaves the house). But we also see what makes her four family members tick and Gowdy gives us complex portraits of all four and what drives them, particularly their sexual activities. Gowdy is not afraid to confront the sexual issues head on and the fact that she does it in the context of a seemingly conventional family makes it all the more valid. A funny novel but one that is moving and challenging at the same time.

Publishing history

First published 1995 by Somerville House Publishing