The Worst Thing I’ve Done
by Ursula Hegi
Published by Touchstone
272 pages, 2007
Saunas, Sex and Survival
Reviewed by Cherie Thiessen
“What’s the worst thing you’ve done today?”
It’s a game that Annie and Mason play. One time, Annie replies, “I didn’t let Opal eat bird food.” Mason points to his new leather jacket and tops it with; “I changed the price tag.”
Opal is the child that Annie and Mason inherited on their wedding day, a child that saw the light of day prematurely when her mother was killed in a car crash after the wedding. Both parents were killed; both were also Annie’s parents.
Imagine a day of unbearable loss that forever wraps tears and horror over a wedding anniversary and a child’s birthday. It’s a rough beginning, especially for a young couple not even out of their teens.
But Opal, who suffers from nightmares, is well loved in the little family. Mason adores her, and Annie takes time out from her university art courses to care for her daughter/sister. Opal also has a second father in Jake. Jake, Annie and Mason, brought up in the same neighborhood, have played together since early childhood and have been inseparable since the age of three. Jake is wild about Opal too.
Mason, once called “sexy trouble” by Annie’s mother’s closest friend, Stormy, may be handsome and intelligent and loving, but he’s no day at the spa. Possessive and controlling, he’s prone to manipulation, fits of jealousy and lying. He alternates between affection and alienation when it comes to Jake, with whom he has been in a contest since they were old enough to push each other off their wagons. It’s a contest that has always stacked up on Mason’s side
The book’s shock at the beginning is immediate and extreme, guaranteeing that the reader is hooked. In contrast, other questions raised take longer to tantalize: are Jake and Mason gay? Did Jake and Annie have sex in the sauna? Did Mason mean to take the ultimate step, or was it a bid for attention that went horribly awry? What was Jake’s part in it? And what is it about that memory of the two boys on the raft that is whirling around in Annie’s memory?
If The Worst Thing I’ve Done was strictly about an engrossing plot, it would be enough. But it’s far, far more than that. This, after all, is Hegi, who was 18 when she emigrated from Germany and who has endeared herself to readers and critics alike with novels like Stones from the River and Floating In My Mother’s Palm, books that explore her conflict over her cultural identity and simmering sense of inherited guilt.
That sense of angst has been transplanted into her protagonist. Mason may have goaded her, but Annie was the one who instigated the act of betrayal. She never confronts that directly, but we don’t miss it.
Eight years have passed since the beautiful and terrible wedding day. Mason wants a second child, but inexplicably Annie does not. Perhaps she knows that their marriage is a fragile sort of beauty. She is becoming good at her art, the collages that take her on unknown journeys, an art that Mason supports until she starts closing her studio door on him shutting him out. You can’t shut out Mason, not in life or death.
While the story is mainly Annie’s, Mason’s voice intrudes time and time again, as indeed it must, because he is in the center, as he knew he would be, and Annie cannot escape that. It’s dead right that he would seek to impact his friend and his wife in this way, by having the last word forever, but it’s hard to believe he would do this to the daughter he loves so unconditionally and who needs him so much.
“Burn in hell, you bastard, for doing this,” Annie thinks, when she sees the trauma inflicted on Opal, who already lost both her parents once. We feel the same way.
So at nights, when Opal is finally asleep at Aunt Stormy’s house, their refuge from the storm, Annie goes driving and listens to love advice on the radio stations while she devours junk food and converses with Mason. After that night in the sauna, she had decided to take Opal and leave him, refusing this time to be held hostage to his threat that he would kill himself if she did.
Like the collages that Annie has become adept at creating, this novel is far more than it initially appears, twisting and leading us into unexpected and denser worlds. You can read it quickly, but you shouldn’t. Crafting this novel is certainly not the worst thing Hegi has ever done. | October 2007
Cherie Thiessen has been a scriptwriter, playwright, creative writing instructor and -- for the past 10 years -- a travel writer and book reviewer. She was the review columnist for Focus on Women Magazine for eight years and has also written numerous reviews for magazines including BC Bookworld, Monday Magazine, Pacific Yachting, Cottage Magazine, The Driftwood News, Linnear Reflections and Douglas College's Event Magazine.