Until I Find You

by John Irving

Published by Random House

848 pages, 2005



Stumbling Towards the Light

Reviewed by Linda L. Richards


First of all, in hardcover, Until I Find You is almost freakishly heavy. Just shy of 850 high quality pages, your arms fall asleep and your neck cranes to odd angles. If, like me, you read in bed at night before falling asleep, you are in danger of being KO'd by your reading material if you nod off. Physically, then, Until I Find You is a dangerous book.

There are readers who would likely say this is a dangerous book in other ways, as well. The sexuality of children is always considered by some to be a verboten topic, no matter how delicately handled. There are elements in John Irving's 11th novel that will have some readers loathing it, while still others will likely want to use the book to start fires.

There is no time when Until I Find You skates towards the pornographic. In fact, just about all of the sexual elements -- concerning children and adults -- are more uncomfortable than arousing. Still. A lot of readers will focus on nothing else. And that's unfortunate, because there's more here than child abuse or self-abuse. A lot more. In fact, there are enough thoughts in Until I Find You for three books, which might explain the breadth of this novel at least in part. There's an awful lot of story here.

That story belongs to Jack Burns, born in Canada in the late 1960s to an unwed mother from Scotland. Alice, the daughter of a tattoo artist, comes to Canada while pregnant to find William Burns, the father of her child. Back in Scotland, William was the church organist whose choir practice got a little more intense than strictly required. Alice's father had sent her to church and choir practice "to give her a life outside the tattoo parlor, never imagining that she would meet her ruin in church and at choir practice..."

The earliest parts of Until I Find You deal with an epic journey Alice takes with Jack when the youngster is just four. Jack understands that they are on William's trail across Europe. The young mother and child face all kinds of challenges in Copenhagen, Stockholm, Oslo, Helsinki and, finally, Amsterdam. Through Jack's eyes, we find Alice to be beautiful and brave. Alice repeatedly tells her son that the two of them are Jack's father's "abandoned responsibilities," and, even at four years old, Jack finds himself wondering at the character of this man -- his father -- whose genetic material contributed to his being. This feeling is reinforced when, on the journey, they encounter young woman after young woman who has been somehow wronged by Jack's father, the organist William Burns.

The journey proves fruitless: Jack and Alice don't get their man, though Alice does come home with a vocation, having apprenticed to the top tattoo artists in the cities she visited in Europe. She returns to Toronto with a tattoo name, Daughter Alice, and is well on her way to being a master of her father's craft, though not before the reader learns more than he or she ever thought they'd want to know about the skin arts.

Back in Toronto, Alice enrolls Jack in an all girl's school that has recently started taking boys to grade four, "...you'll be safe with all the girls," Alice tells her son though, as it turns out, nothing could be further from the truth. It is while at the school, St. Hilda's, that the abuse of Jack begins. First at the hands of an older St. Hilda's student who will, in a way, end up being Jack's stepsister as well as -- much later in the book -- his most significant adult relationship. Later he is abused by an adult caregiver, a woman who turns out to be a habitual pedophile.

Jack is beautiful, compelling from early childhood. And he wonders what it is about himself that causes people to treat him the way they do. It must, he concludes, have something to do with his father, the infamous William Burns who refused to own up to his responsibilities. The father inside him that he is afraid of.

Jack studies film and, later, finds success as an actor. He becomes, in fact, a movie star, with all of the glamour and agony the phrase evokes. He is haunted by his childhood and the loss of the innocence he's not completely sure he ever had. And he is haunted, also, by the absence of the father who never wanted anything to do with him. When Jack's mother dies, secrets about her past -- and Jack's -- surface and Jack discovers that much of his life requires reevaluation.

Irving's voice throughout Until I Find You is a melancholic monotone and it's perhaps the only way this tale could have been believably told. Jack's story is often heartbreakingly over-the-top. The things that befall him, the choices he makes, the places he ends up. In some ways, the book is as much a chronicle of Jack's neurosis as it is the story of his life. Irving wisely chooses to tell his story quietly, he doesn't need to provide the dismay, we arrive there quite nicely on our own.

Make no mistake: Until I Find You is, in many ways, a very dark book. Perhaps Irving's darkest to date. But, being Irving, there is humor tucked into the darkness, though sometimes you have to look for a bit to find it. Jack Burns is, for much of the book, tragic. A sad sack with nowhere to turn, he has fame, money and very little else. Everything about him is larger than life: hugely abused as a child, wildly famous as an adult and oddly insulated and isolated by that fame. But, before we part company with him, we discover that, despite various advantages and disadvantages and the things that contribute to making him somehow other, Jack is not so different from anyone else. Frail and human, spending his life, like you and I, stumbling towards the light.

Until I Find You is the perfect book to follow Irving's disastrous 2001 novel, The Fourth Hand. Fans that had wondered if the author of such modern classics as The Hotel New Hampshire, The World According to Garp and The Cider House Rules still had the right stuff need wonder no more. While Until I Find You will clearly not be for everyone, it is a darkly beautiful book that will stand shoulder to shoulder with the best work this author has produced. | October 2005

Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine. Her fourth novel, Death was the Other Woman, will be published early in 2008 by St. Martin's Minotaur.