cover image Perlman's Ordeal

Perlman's Ordeal

Brooks Hansen. Farrar Straus Giroux, $24 (320pp) ISBN 978-0-374-23078-4

Hansen (The Chess Garden) has a particular talent for otherworldly effects, and this account of the experiences of an Austrian doctor in Edwardian London offers a dazzling array of them, from hypnotism to possession to table-tapping to mythical visions. The title refers to Dr. August Perlman, a skilled hypnotist who can often ""heal"" suggestible people at his clinic attached to a London hospital. One day Sylvie Blum, a young girl in a starved, catatonic state, is brought to him; hypnotism instantly brings forth a dominant, healthy secondary personality, Nina. While embarking on her treatment, the music-loving Perlman meets, at a symphony concert, Madame Helena Barrett, a spiritualist whose brother was a young composer, dead much too young, whose music Perlman much admires. He gets to know her somewhat eccentric, half-Russian circle, and when Barrett takes an interest in Sylvie/Nina, Nina insists on being taken to visit her. Much against his better instincts, Perlman agrees, and thus begins his ordeal: a long and harrowing struggle for the spirit of the girl, who is deeply immersed in a previous life apparently lived as a handmaiden in Atlantis. Hansen shows undeniable skill in upending Perlman's self-confident, rational mindset in a welter of play-acting, s ance shocks and mythic visions. But oddly, despite the dramatic fireworks of the concluding chapters, what lingers is the loving evocation of the period's musical life: London audience hearing Mahler's First Symphony for the first time, a chat with George Bernard Shaw in his capacity as music critic, Perlman's excitement over the new Welte-Mignon mechanical piano. These details bring setting and character to life in a way the rather high-flown plot fails to accomplish. (Aug.)