Several weeks ago I had the good fortune to attend a talk by Robert MacNeil at the Guilderland Public Library. MacNeil is best known as the former co-host of the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour on PBS. He retired in 1995 but has continued to write both fiction and non-fiction. His talk at Guilderland focused on two of his novels, “Burden of Desire” written in 1992, and its sequel, “Portrait of Julia,” which was published last year.
MacNeil read excerpts from both novels and certainly whetted my appetite to read them. We have had “Burden of Desire” since its publication and I’m surprised that it hasn’t circulated more than it has. Perhaps it’s because it takes place in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and therefore doesn’t generate much excitement in our readers. Or maybe it’s because it’s more a character study than a suspense thriller. Either way it’s a shame because there’s much to learn from it.
The book focuses on three main characters in Halifax during World War I. One is a young Anglican priest named Peter who is still adjusting to his profession while dealing with a wife who has severe emotional problems. Another is Charles, a university professor in clinical psychology who is greatly influenced by the theories of Sigmund Freud which are not well accepted at the time. Then there is the voluptuous Julia, who keeps a diary of her innermost feelings and passions while her husband is off at war. The paths of these three people crisscross throughout the book.
Although the stories of the these characters are engrossing, what makes “Burden of Desire” an inspiring read is the description of a real-life cataclysmic event that few people are aware of, and the presentation of the Great War from a totally human perspective.