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Fiction Literary

The Hypnotist

by (author) Sarah Sheard

Doubleday Canada
Initial publish date
May 2000
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    May 2000
    List Price

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Drawn together by mutual friends and a shared love of art, Signe, a talented photographer, and William, a psychiatrist, construct a private and passionate world of two. From the beginning, William asserts subtle but firm control over Signe, while maintaining a discreet distance from her. Driven by a need to penetrate the mystery of this man, Signe tries to crack the code to his carefully guarded world of hypnosis and psychotherapy.

Sarah Sheard employs her precise and evocative prose to tell a cautionary tale about the allure of romantic love - an intoxicating, but ultimately malevolent enthralment.

About the author

Sarah Sheard is the author of two other critically acclaimed novels, The Swing Era, and the national bestseller The Hypnotist. Sarah won the 45 Below Award for her fiction, and a National Magazine Award for her essay on the Coach House Press. She lives in Toronto, where she mentors writers at Humber College and Ryerson Polytechnic University, and maintains a private practice as a psychotherapist and mediator.

Sarah Sheard's profile page

Excerpt: The Hypnotist (by (author) Sarah Sheard)

How did Signe meet William? Through mutual friends, of course: Sabrina and Gaitan. Sabrina was of Romanian background, a free spirit who liked to think she carried gypsy blood. She designed costumes for the Canadian Opera Company; her husband was a set painter. She had predicted Signe's affair through her Tarot readings although she told no one at first except her husband. Gaitan was also a free spirit but of French-Canadian descent and somewhat skeptical of Sabrina's superstitions. Even so, he grudgingly respected her empathic attunement to events of the heart.

Signe met the couple the summer she spent photographing the opera company for a travelling exhibition that would accompany their fall tour. She hung around rehearsals, at first clicking the shutter of an empty camera, setting up behind clusters of singers and instrumentalists with her tripod until gradually the musicians, like wildlife on a game preserve, learned to ignore her and she quietly slipped film into her camera and began shooting for keeps. A month later she had more than enough images for the show.

One August night in a bar, celebrating the opera tour's launch as well as Signe's impending departure from people she'd come to think of as family, she shot some studies in black and white of Sabrina's and Gaitan's hands on a table, setting up camera, tripod, and timer so as to allow her fingers to be shot entwined with theirs -- capturing the true nature of their friendship, "their esprit," Gaitan said. She made an enlargement for them which they hung in a place of honour above their bed, and another for herself which she put in her kitchen.

That winter, Signe's faltering marriage came to an end. Sabrina and Gaitan threw her a lifeline and now, several years later, their friendship was stronger than ever. All that was lacking, according to Sabrina and Gaitan, was a mate for Signe.

Signe was walking out of her "banish the January blahs" yoga class at the Y when she bumped into Gaitan coming in for a swim. He buttonholed her and, with a lascivious wiggle of his eyebrow announced: "We've  found a fabulous guy for you. Don't know why we didn't think of him before."

Signe glanced up at the overcast sky and then at her watch. "Give it up, Gaitan."

"He's a looker. As a man, I'd know nothing about that, of course, but Sabrina tells me he is. And -- he's single."

"That's lovely. Look, it's going to snow or something in a minute. I've got to run. Tell Sabrina -- "

"He won't bite. He's very intelligent -- almost as smart as you, and a médecin. Un psychiatre."

Signe smiled at the p, pronounced almost explosively in French, and shook her head. "Gai, a curator's calling this afternoon. I've got to get home. It might be something about a group show."

"Signe, art can wait for once. This is life! He's passionate about photography and books and ballet. He saw your hands photograph and of course we lent him the catalogue from your show. He loved it. You don't believe me? Come around, tomorrow afternoon. Say, four? Check for yourself."

"Ton crédibilité est dans la poubelle, mon cher. T'as oublié?"

"Give me another chance. The guy himself didn't know he was gay."

She shut her eyes for a long moment.

"Life is about climbing back on. Just meet him, why don't you? Sabrina's new espresso machine -- " He made a little moue with his lips. "Sensational coffee. Come on, live a little."

Signe laughed and gave in. "Sunday at four, then."

She wasn't aware of having any expectations about this man, was too busy fantasizing about a possible show, yet, the next day, when William walked through her friends' front door, she did register a sag of disappointment. He was small-boned, delicately put together, and terribly neat in appearance. He looked a few years older than her, maybe thirty-five or thirty-six, conventionally dressed in polo T-shirt and pleated pants. Had she been hoping for someone more like Gaitan, more dishevelled, sexy, artistic? William's features were fine, with dark blue Scottish eyes, hair that would have been coppery red in his youth, a pointed nose, and something tensely held about the muscles of his mouth as though he were about to break into a whistle.

"Sig-ne. Rhymes with fig tree," she helped.

He shook her hand and smiled, but tightly so in an effort to conceal his bottom teeth which she'd glimpsed were crooked. Rodent, she thought unkindly as they were being introduced.

Sabrina, hanging on his arm, dusted off the chair opposite Signe and pressed him into it with a hand on each shoulder. He leaned forward and whispered, "The ecstatic union of lanscape and flesh. I loved that."

Signe was startled. She'd never been quoted her own captions before.

"Your photographs reminded me, for some reason, of the work of Stieglitz or Brassaï." He closed his eyes briefly. When he opened them again he was looking straight at Signe.

Before she had time to refute his comparison, Gaitan insinuated his arm between them with the coffeepot. William took a sip of his espresso, noticed all three of them watching him and his eyes narrowed with suspicion.

"You put something in this, right?"

Sabrina rolled her eyes. "William Morrison. Trust, trust."

"The taste," said Gaitan. "How is it?"

William looked at him and then at Signe.

Feeling an irrepressible urge to tease, she bent towards him conspiratorially, "You may want to leave your car here overnight."

His cup froze in midair.

She couldn't resist taking it one step further. "Hallucinogenics don't mix well with heavy machinery."

the room broke up.

William declined to play along. He drained his cup and smacked it down into the saucer. "Not bad. Actually, I do have a squash game booked this evening. I wouldn't mind leaving the car here. Do you play?" His question was to Signe.

It caught her by surprise. "Squash? Heavens, no! I used to ride horseback in my teens. Does that count?"

His eyes remained fixed on hers for a moment and then he smiled. He addressed his comments exclusively to Signe after that, ignoring the others, telegraphing his interest in her to everyone, much to her discomfort. Sensing this, he switched gears, making reference again to one of her photographs, describing it closely, then going on to discuss the impact it had on him. He adored the image of the singer superimposed against the prop of a lighthouse, was sure her picture had been in homage to Virginia Woolf. "If she were a photographer, I think yours are the kind of images she would have made. They're so contemporary and free of convention, like Woolf's writing. Some day I'll have to tell you about Woolf's manic depression and its influence on her work. Creating something as original as the images for that show is an enviable accomplishment. I mean that." He was winding up to deliver more when Signe held up her hand. "Enough, enough."

William shifted topics like an exposer flashing open his trench coat of knowledge to reveal an extensive familiarity with seventeenth-century art, architecture and ballet music, his particular passion. She was about to ask how he found time for all of this when the carrot cake emerged from the oven and Sabrina and Gaitan's children tumbled into the kitchen to demand their share. A clatter of plates and cutlery and they were off again. While she ate, Signe observed William more closely. Comb marks were visible in his thick helmet of mahogany hair. He had the closely manicured nails and institutional pallor of a medical man; the vigilant gaze of one who assessed the mental stability of others for a living. She found herself repelled and fascinated by him. He had Mongomery Clift's eyes. With his pager clipped to his belt, he seemed part flesh and part machine.

Sabrina patted his arm and asked how his work was going but Signe couldn't deduce exactly what sort of work he did. She knew of course that it was psychiatric but he talked only of women with eating disorders in a hospital and she was anxious not to draw attention to herself again by asking questions. She squirmed in silence, fearing that Sabrina or Gaitan had  already told her William's job. They enjoyed twitting her for her fugitive memory, which was hardly fair since theirs were no better. They'd speculated at times as to whether or not the psychotropic excesses of their youth were to blame. She had no interest no in hearing a psychiatrist's views on that one.

She was till trying to figure out exactly what it was William did at this hospital of his when the boy, Max, burst back into the kitchen, hotly pursued by his sister, Roxanne. He dove under Signe's chair and begged asylum. William got up and playfully seized him by the ankles, holding him upside down and shaking him, much to the delight of the girl. Max burst into giggles and shouted, "I'm guilty, I'm guilty!" a totally spontaneous admission that reduced them all to laughter. "Round one to Freud!" William said and lowered him to the floor. He caught Signe's smile and sat down, pleased with himself.

She didn't recall addressing anything to William after that. She wanted to draw back as though into the shadows behind a lens, feeling herself too closely scrutinized by him. He was so tightly held in that she felt her own chest constricting in response and his eyelashes fluttered so furiously whenever their eyes met that she preferred to look away. She wondered if he too were gay, like her last date. She did like the fact that he was a healer, a comforter of the desperately ill. That was an honourable work in her books -- and dramatic. In another circumstance, she would have liked to ask him a hundred indiscreet questions about sickness and death -- and about Virginia Woolf's madness. She had no real interest at present, though, in a romantic dalliance. Her heart was still a bit rickety from her separation. It wanted time to recuperate before being tested by another male of the species.

The visit was over. Signe turned to hug Sabrina goodbye at the door when William glided up behind her with her coat. She hadn't been helped on with her coat by someone of her won age since her high school prom, and she told him that, mocking him a little, but he only beamed as though at a compliment and then walked her down the street to her car, leaning against the driver's side window to tell her how much he'd enjoyed the afternoon.

Three days later, her phone rang. She caught it on the  first ring, still expecting the art gallery curator.

"Hello. It's William Morrison calling."

"Oh ... hello."

"Sabrina and Gaitan's friend."

"Oh my, yes. I'm sorry. My head's crammed full right now. I'm in the middle of a bunch of darkroom work."

"I was wondering ... if I could get to know you a bit better."

Signe put down the negatives she was sorting. What an opener. "Oh, well, thanks but I'm very busy these days. I'm -- "

"Doing your art. I know. What I'm looking for is friendship, on whatever terms feel comfortable for you."

"Oh." It seemed churlish to rebuff him outright. She hated not being considerate, including to strangers. She told him she'd have to call him back. He gave her his number and hung up.

A week later he called again but this time she was lugging archive boxes of photographs up from the basement, too out of breath to properly carry on a conversation. She promised she'd call him back. Instead she phoned Sabrina.

"Listen, why is this William guy calling me up all the time?"

"Signe, I'll confess something here. I -- "

"You clearly gave him my number. What else have you given him, Sabrina? Come on!"

"You can handle this guy, trust me. If you don't want him to pursue you, tell him. You're both grown-ups."

Signe sighed and hung up. Sabrina had it in her  to be a compulsive fixer-upper. Her mothering had come close to smothering at times.

William called twice more that week and Signe talked a little longer each time, about music and books and photographers and the weather, feeling curiously tongue-tied and uncomfortable. He suggested she drop by his apartment. She told him she would agree to see him only in the company of other people. "Otherwise," she blurted out, "we might end up in bed together and I have no intention of doing that."

Whatever had made her say such a thing? Suddenly, she knew it was exactly what she feared might happen. Further proof that her heart was not remotely reliable at present. God knows that she might blurt out next, like a tipsy parrot at a wake.

He went silent on the other end of the line. "I wouldn't want you to do anything you're not absolutely comfortable with," he said quietly.

She rolled her eyes. Discomfort was her habitual state around this man.

He was off for two weeks to visit his parents vacationing in South Carolina but before he went he asked her if she would like him to record some of his CDs onto cassette for her. It seemed a safe enough gesture of friendship. After all, music was one of their common interests. He inquired as to what she liked. She told him most classical music but also any kind  of spiritual music -- hymns, Celtic songs, classical Indian music, chanting. Privately she was skeptical. In her experience, men often promised things but failed to deliver -- the gesture of offering being the gift itself. She was taken aback, to say the least, two days later, when she found a package on her front doorstep. Inside were four cassettes with a note wrapped around them, secured with an elastic. He had written with fountain pen in round, private-school characters -- For your ears only -- in turquoise ink. There was something both irritatingly precious and yet vulnerable about the whole gesture. She opened up the package.

The music was gorgeous: opera, Gershwin, Presbyterian hymns, Van Morrison with the Chieftains, and some plainsong chanted in an English cathedral. She listened to the plainsong all that rainy afternoon in her basement, making print after print to show this elusive curator, should he ever make good his promise to come and see her work, and again she understood that William, this strange man, was actually trying to say something to her. He had warned her he would put his soul onto those tapes. She realized she was famished for something he might perhaps really be offering her, a kind of transport, through the music, out of her solitude, towards friendship with a man again.

She washed the chemicals off her hands, sat down with a glass of wine, and wrote him a letter.

Dear William,
Thank you for the music you sent me. Each of the tapes -- the plainsong particularly -- found its way into my ear at different times and nested there, even the tavern-thickened voice of that Irishman.
Over the last couple of weeks I've found myself puzzling over my response to you. It's just that  events in my recent past have built a protective rind around me to rebuff even the simplest overtures of friendship from a man.
Do you think we could try that first bit again, the introductory part? I promise I can be a more reasonable facsimile of myself because I have this twinge that we -- no, wait.
Let me try just once to take advantage of my years of yoga, not to overstep the present but breathe instead through the soles  of my perennially uncertain feet.
I enclose a photograph I made this evening in homage to -- can you guess? The strange-shaped shadow in the lower left is intended to be cast by a groundhog. I made it with my fingers and a candle. Have I brought on six more weeks of winter?

  Signe Hanover

She read it over, pleased with the photograph she'd enclosed. She was sealing the envelope when the phone rang. The art gallery curator at last.

The day William arrived at home from South Carolina, he called her, breathless with excitement. She could actually hear him panting on the phone, which intrigued her. He loved her letter and the photograph and asked if she would like to have dinner with him sometime. Impulsively she said, "I'm going to a slide lecture later this evening, but why not tonight?"

Signe arrived at his condominium at five. She was taken aback by the electronic efficiency of the underground parking garage; by the opulent marble foyer of his building, the tropical foliage, the bank of waiting elevators, the uniformed concierge who paged him for her on an antique telephone.

They walked through a howling February wind to Le Condor, a little French restaurant he liked, three blocks away. She'd thrown on only a thin duffel coat and arrived at the restaurant shivering and almost speechless with cold and nervousness. He ordered wine which at first she refused, reminding him of her slide lecture a few hours hence; it wouldn't do to fall asleep. He urged just one glass on her and she relented. They began to talk about music and photography again and then, abruptly, he began to talk about growing up catholic in Shipton, a Protestant small town near Ottawa, and about wanting to be a priest, and then, as the waiter was refilling her water glass, he confessed abruptly that for much of his adult life he'd felt unlovable.

She stifled her shock at his disclosure. Why was he admitting such things to a stranger? Anxious to be rid of the hovering waiter, she reached for her half-filled glass and he bowed and left. She couldn't raise her eyes to William's, focused instead on his Adam's apple, anything to avoid staring at his teeth as he talked. Sensing her discomfort, William brushed a hand carefully over his hair, clamped his mouth closed as though experiencing a pain. She flashed a smile to reassure him and they both pretended the moment had passed.

Bread arrived. He shook out his napkin and draped it precisely across his lap, then reached across and did the same for her and she thought with a twinge of sadness that he was exactly the kind of man her parents would have wanted her to marry. William smiled at her as though reading her mind. She struggled to find something about him appealing physically but her eyes kept straying to his perfect hair, his tense mouth, his fluttering hands.

More confessions followed. He was the eldest in a family of eight and food was something he'd learned to fight for and eat quickly. Signe, on the other hand, was a heavily scrutinized only child who'd never had the chance to leave a crust behind. His parents were alive; hers were not. They both expressed curt envy of the other's lot. He was so formal and reserved; her own back began to ache with tension now, too. She wondered if he laughed hard or got drunk, ever. Gaitan and Sabrina's friends were usually such bon vivants. She could let herself go, be goofy and unfettered around them. She couldn't imagine being goofy in front of William. She tried to visualize his mouth forming the word.

"What happened to your marriage?" he asked, his face neutral but inviting -- as though nothing she might say could shock him. His professional demeanour, she assumed.

Signe found herself telling him how she and her professor had first fallen in love, how happy the first few years of their marriage had been, how miserable the last. She mentioned her discovery of his affair, the confrontation, his reluctant agreement to separate. They hadn't yet gotten around to a divorce. She still missed him, she admitted, although she'd grown up an awful lot, since, and her photography had kept her sane throughout. She asked to change the subject.

When dinner was over, he held her chair for her as she rose, and in the cloakroom he held out her coat. As she plunged about gracelessly in search of armholes she felt her cheeks flush, her ancient affliction, flaring up at moments like this, aware she was not nearly as polished a woman as he was a man. Already, she was regretting having told him so much about herself.

As they crossed the street to the garage where her car was parked he put his arm through hers and she stiffened. He apologized and withdrew his arm, explaining that it had felt natural to do that. As she fished out her keys and thanked him for the dinner he stepped in close. Impulsively, she gave him a quick kiss on the mouth. She had intended to push him away. Instead, she squeezed his shoulder in farewell and blurted aloud, "Small bones."

He blinked and stepped away from her.

She drove out to the street, her hand to her cheek. What on earth had made her say that? And then, to kiss him! From her rearview mirror she caught his hand raised in a sad little wave.

The lecture never happened. She arrived to find a notice taped to the locked doors of the hall: Cancelled Due to Illness. For weeks, she had been looking forward to hearing the speaker, an American artist who'd renounced his Western life to photograph the blind in Bhopal and raise money for their care, "putting compassion into action." Disappointed and confused, she went home to bed. She hadn't intended to go on a date with William and yet she had gone. She hadn't wanted a drink and yet she had accepted one. She'd disclosed intimacies to a virtual stranger about her failed marriage. She certainly hadn't planned to  kiss him and that had happened, too. She kicked herself for her impetuosity, brought on by ... she wasn't sure exactly what. A feeling of obligation because of his vulnerability and the expensive dinner? A complicated kiss, to be sure.

Men, men, men. This one was a hypnotist, he had told her. Literally. Hypnotic interventions helped cancer patients manage pain; hypnogogic visualizations were used to help spin tumours down to flyspecks, flush them out of the flesh. She'd read that in a magazine once. William used hypnosis to help women with anorexia approach food again; stop bulimics from sticking their fingers down their throats. She was moved by his stories of success, shocked with perverse delight at his descriptions of these disorders. Skeletal women looked into mirrors and saw apparitions of fat. What they believed was what they saw. Others binged, eating a shopping cart of  food at one sitting and then purging themselves. Stomach acid etched the enamel off their teeth. Obsessions and delusions, extreme behaviours fascinated Signe, including self-destructive ones. William talked about hypnotic induction and post-hypnotic suggestions, of how a person's candidacy for hypnosis could be assessed by a simple eye-rolling test. She wondered how he pulled psychiatry and hypnosis together to help these young women shed their dreadful self-images and begin to yearn towards healthy life again, like plants towards light. She was curious as to what he thought of such women -- of women, generally.

Editorial Reviews

"An intense and gripping exploration of an obsessive-compulsive love affair— The Hypnotist is mesmerizing, asking as many different questions about the nature of love, as it answers. It's a true thriller, a work to dip back into again and again." —The Toronto Star
"Retaining the lyrical precision of language and image for which [Sheard] is justly renowned—her style has transformed from a poetic sensibility—into a storytelling sensitivity."—National Post
"A riveting story—laced with startling images."—Books in Canada

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