By Cynthia Holz
Alfred A. Knopf Canada
310 pages, $29.95
Review by Tara Hughes
From its shocking opening to its moving conclusion, Cynthia Holz’s new novel, Benevolence, examines the destructive effects of fear and spiritual exhaustion on a marriage, and the rough healing that sometimes follows.
Holz takes the reader deep into the lives of a childless, aging couple for whom hiding one’s true desires has become second nature. In the process, she asks whether the divide between daily life and the life of the soul can ever really be narrowed – and answers, perhaps surprisingly, Yes.
Renata and Ben – a psychologist and psychiatrist, respectively – spend long days helping damaged people, or turning them away when they cannot. But in their personal lives they are lost. Bitter with disappointment, each afraid of censure from the other, they have become dessicated, their marriage a dry husk of what once was green and alive.
As we meet them, though, they encounter two patients who will challenge their professional remove and force them to grow. The faster Renata and Ben run from their fears, the more inexorably Holz draws them towards, respectively, a young pregnant woman and a potential kidney donor who – in a lovely reversal – help their therapists to heal.
The story alternates between the points of view of the two protagonists, interspersed occasionally with that of Ben’s mother, Molly. While Renata and Ben are likable characters, they are also so frustrating in their fear and anxiety that the reader turns with relief to Molly and her surrender to “It is what it is.” Seventy years old and a widow, she has lived alone for 15 years. Now, with the return of a former lover, she must face her own secrets and desires.
“The looking, that was it,” Holz writes of Molly’s reawakening, “– the way he looked deeply into her eyes and past them. The way he gave his full attention, then and now, made something widen in her chest, and suddenly there was room in her for all his faults and goodness, for joy and suffering. What was this big space, this quietness, she wondered – and then she knew. Forgiveness.”
Molly learns that life is not about expecting miracles, but accepting the present moment and allowing oneself to be surprised. Hers is a gentle rebirth, a beautiful counterpoint to the more tortured struggles of Renata and Ben.
Holz’s secondary characters are delightful, believable, and beautifully rendered. She peppers the book with symbols of life’s comings and goings — trains, rivers, births, deaths – and uses recurring images of floating to suggest the surfacing of the heart, of desire. While the story is simply told, the effect of the characters’ epiphanies is cumulative and Benevolence gains power as it develops.
I found some of the author’s choices occasionally sensationalist or predictable — the opening dialogue almost florid, the ending slightly contrived. Regardless, I will keep and reread this book simply for the wisdom contained within its pages. In the end, Holz’s characters find goodness in themselves in the most unexpected ways. They stop running from their fears and land in the now, reminded of nature’s interconnectedness and life’s capacity for new beginnings. In these moments, they renew their ability to love, and leave us with hope for their future.
Benevolence will surprise you – if you take the time to let it do so.
Tara Hughes is a writer, producer, and actor living in Toronto.