Quill & Quire Review - Large Harmonium

Quill & Quire
Reviewed by: Candace

Sue Sorensen mines her own experiences in her first novel, a charming and gentle look at a year in the life of an English professor at a college in Winnipeg. Dr Janet Erlicksen is attempting to juggle her various roles - wife, mother, academic - while grappling with near-crippling self-doubt. Janey knows she is a lucky woman with a good job, a wonderful husband named Hector, and a rambunctious son, but Sorensen skilfully depicts the ways an otherwise fine life can be undercut by lacerating bouts of confusion, uncertainty, and depression. Janey serves as the novel's narrator, and her inner conflicts often appear to be the result of insecurity born from simple exhaustion.

It's clear that Hector loves his wife, and sex is a major part of their marriage, but Janey nevertheless imagines he is in love with someone else. The two have been married for over a decade, and Hector is still more than willing to pounce on Janey whenever he gets a chance, we understand her doubts have little basis in reality, but are rather the product of an abiding insecurity. That insecurity simmers in Janey's role as mother, and practically boils over on the work front.

Sorensen does an excellent job of satirizing academic life, particularly in a scene in which Janey has too much to drink and lets fly about Lacan and Derrida: anyone remotely connected to the academic world will recognize the silliness in the sequence. The novel is full of literary allusions and witticisms. Janey spends much of her time trying to determine which literary character her husband most closely resembles, even though it is obvious that Hector is 'sui generis'.

The harmonium of the title resides in the college's music department, where Hector is a professor, and Sorensen includes a lovely scene in which Hector uses it to play part of an opera he is working on. The title also reflects Janey's relatively harmonious life. Sorensen's protagonist find inner solace in part through an increasing reliance on religion, which is used in the novel to tie things up a little too neatly. Despite this, Sorensen's inside knowledge of her subject and her light narrative touch make for a mostly enjoyable read.

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