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Author tackles identity disorder

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TORONTO author Lilian Nattel set out to write her newest novel with the best of intentions -- to shed light on the lives and challenges faced by individuals living with a condition known as dissociative identity disorder.

Unfortunately, those good intentions did not translate into an especially good work of fiction. As discriminating readers of Jodi Picoult already know, focusing a narrative on a single issue or disease does not necessarily make a captivating novel.

Web of Angels is the story of Sharon Lewis, a happily married woman living in west end Toronto with a supportive husband, two children, a bothersome mother-in-law, part-time work and a solid network of family, friends and neighbours. She also is a woman living with and functioning well with DID, which is commonly, but erroneously, referred to as split personality. DID is often the result of childhood trauma.

As Lewis's therapist explains, "When a child experiences excessive trauma... the mind can split into pieces and each part becomes a separate person.... On the outside at least Sharon could grow up and learn normal functioning. But those others are still there, suffering, reliving the trauma over and over."

For Lewis this normal functioning begins to unravel when neighbour Heather Edwards commits suicide. Heather is the pregnant 16-year-old sister of Cathy, who happens to be the girlfriend of Lewis's son.

Something about the suicide and the odd behaviour of Cathy and her accomplished parents just doesn't seem right to Lewis. Haunted by her own experiences, and inspired by the insight and observations of her multiple personalities, her "web of angels," she begins to investigate the circumstances surrounding the tragedy. As she does so, Lewis is forced, for the first time ever, to disclose to her family and friends her own horrific past and the lingering consequences of that past.

Lewis, like Nattel's heroines in her previous and better written novels, The River Midnight and The Singing Fire, is a strong woman unafraid to speak her mind or follow her instincts. Yet unlike with these other leading characters, Lewis's strength does not come across as particularly compelling or inspiring.

Instead it seems to be diluted by the blandness of the narrative and its fragmented and oddly unmoving glimpses into Lewis's past and personalities. This novel, in spite of its subject matter, evokes little sympathy or suspense.

What Nattel does best in this fiction, the first of hers to be set in contemporary times, is depict the Toronto area neighbourhood in which her heroine lives and the way in which this neighbourhood, or village, rallies to protect Cathy.

Nattel also manages an insight or two into the resilience of the human spirit. Of course, in spite of her fumblings, she deserves credit for tackling the difficult subjects of DID and childhood sexual abuse.

The truth remains, however, that potential readers interested in these subjects are already likely to be fans of the Steven Spielberg-produced Showtime television series United States of Tara. While presumably this series depicts DID in a way that is not entirely accurate, it does benefit nonetheless from the extraordinary acting of Toni Collette.

Nattel's fictionalized Sharon Lewis just cannot compete.

Sharon Chisvin is a Winnipeg writer.

Web of Angels

By Lilian Nattel

Knopf Canada, 343 pages, $22

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 3, 2012 J11

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