Marilyn Bowering’s haunting novel What It Takes to Be Human, is set largely in an asylum for the criminally insane in British Columbia in the late 1930s and early 1940s.
Sandy Grey’s version of reality may not match those in the world within a world in which he finds himself, but he does know what it is ‘to be human’—unlike those, beginning with his parents, who have treated him cruelly. The world outside is disintegrating in war, and within the confines of the asylum, the same war with its automatic hatreds and racism continue to play out. Sandy’s allies—the tragic and beautiful Georgina, the ‘Jap’ Kosho and others such as Karl, the German alien and Winchell the Spanish Civil war veteran have human qualities that the inhumane attendant Pete Cooper could never even imagine. Even the ghostly insistent presence of the unjustly executed Alan MacCauley finds Sandy’s ear sympathetic and a means of achieving recompense from beyond the grave. With the good doctors Frank and Love and the reappearance of the girl who was the love of his childhood, Sandy may have a chance—but what can innocence do against the blunt tools of psychiatric experimentalism and a world from which both the good and the rational have been excluded?
Marilyn Bowering re-visions everyman’s history in archetypal terms, and what’s at stake is whether life is worth living at all.