Book Review: Hysteria by Elisabeth de Mariaffi

The dictionary definition of “hysteria” — exaggerated or uncontrollable emotion or excitement — describes well the experiences of Heike Lerner, the main character in Elisabeth de Mariaffi’s novel with this title. 

The story begins with Heike and her younger sister escaping from Nazi Germany. It is a brutal trek for the two young girls through the European woods, during which time Heike’s sister disappears. Requiring convalescent care after this escape, Heike was taken into a convent to recuperate under the psychiatric care of Dr. Eric Lerner. 

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Fast forward to the 1950’s and Heike is now married to Eric and living in America. She has a seemingly perfect life, complete with her successful husband; Daniel, her son whom she adores; and a summer house by the lake where she spends the days exploring the woods, swimming and canoeing. However, Heike begins to notice some odd things. In the woods is a cabin that appears to be abandoned, there’s a strange girl who appears at the lake, but then seemingly disappears underwater, and Eric is confusing her with a recollection of events that differs from hers.

Heike begins to confide her confusion to Leo Dolan, an American screenwriter and host of one of the many soirees Eric and Heike attend, and to Arden, Eric’s sister. Through these relationships Heike’s situation becomes clearer, and we realize that Heike suspects Eric’s control is more to do with experimental drugs than simply mind games. 

Things begin to spiral further out of control when Leo brings Heike home one night and she finds that Daniel has gone missing. Eric seems unconcerned about his disappearance, remaining calm and unworried, serving only to cement Heike’s feelings of unease. Is Eric responsible for Daniel’s disappearance? 

Heike’s search for Daniel further blurs the lines between perception and reality until the twisted ending when all is revealed. 

A must read for those who enjoy an eerie tale that begins with a girl lost in the woods.

Helen Varga is a library technician at the Steveston Branch of the Richmond Public Library. 

For other popular reading suggestions check out Richmond Public Library's Web site at www.yourlibrary.ca/goodbooks/.  

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