Review of The Only-Good Heart by Beth Goobie
A version of this article originally appeared in Prairie Fire magazine (1999), and is reproduced here with the author’s permission.
Though we dismiss demonic cults as an urban myth, many people still harbour a lingering suspicion that such things may exist and be responsible for some of the small-town horrors we sometimes read about in the news. In her eleventh book, Beth Goobie has boldly exploited that suspicion. She has described a life of ritualized predation, starting from the birth of her protagonist, Dori, and delving ever deeper into the insidious activities of Dori’s devil-worshipping cult, the Kin.
Instead of balking at the terror of her task, Goobie has engaged us head-on with every detail of depravity. From the rape of toddlers in the grip of the Kin, to sex with dogs, child prostitution and ritualized murder, Goobie shows us the extremes of perversity. For such bravery alone, The Only-Good Heart deserves to be noticed.
At times both tittilating and horrifying, this novel is ostensibly about Dori’s refusal to submit entirely to the Kin’s sophisticated program of medical experimentation and mind control. In its finest moments, The Only-Good Heart shows us the kernel of goodness that resides within the human heart, even when that heart has been fed nothing but evil. That Dori continues, even into adulthood and deeper slavery, to seek out the love of others illustrates the inability of technology and community to extinguish the good within us. The quest of the Kin’s children to find a world occupied only by “good hearts” gives the novel its title, and sets a hopeful theme in the opening chapters. Unfortunately, that theme dissipates as adult Dori has fewer actual relationships, and regales us instead with images of druggish paranormalcy.
At its worse, the book is directionless and purposefully vague. Written in present tense poetic prose, it shows us a world, albeit from Dori’s altered perception, that escalates in esotericity. We are deliberately kept in uncertainty. The Kin’s advanced shock therapy seemingly allows Dori to visit other dimensions, and we are asked to suspect early on that she is in fact the Anti-Christ. It is never made clear whether these paranormal perceptions –which occupy a tiring majority of the prose– are manifestations of Dori’s crumbling psychology, or are indeed actual phantasmagorical projections from the nether realms.
Dori uses her dimension-hopping abilities, whether real of imagined, to distance herself from the crimes being perpetrated upon her body. Since she relates these experiences in passionless tones, and is in fact able to separate herself from her body, a large amount of the compassion we originally felt for her dissolves. This is not a failure of the narrative necessarily, but of the prose which is overly focused on being descriptive of altered states and demonic fantasy.
A typographical expression of this failing is the dubious choice to have eschewed indenting paragraphs, and to have out-dented them instead. Clearly meant to indicate differentness and perhaps otherworldliness, it is nevertheless a symptom of the underlying pathology of the novel: an obsession with form without sufficient concentration on substance.
Visit author/scientist Raywat Deonandan at Deonandan.com.