The Effects of Isolation on the Brain by Erika Rummel

Don’t let the title mislead you; this is not a book about the results of a psychology experiment, however it is a novel about a woman who uses that excuse to explain away her presence in a cabin in a remote northern Ontario town in the dead of winter, should anyone ask. Ellie Kruezweg describes her situation in the opening pages:

It’s the middle of November, and I’m bored out of my mind. The ground is covered
with an inch of snow. The lake has a glassy-looking crust of ice. It’s no longer navigable.
No getting away by boat now. The cottagers have gone home. They’ve switched off the
power drained the toilets, pulled up the dry docks, and put their boats into storage.
I’m cut off from the rest of the world unless I want to walk out to Logham, “home to
the world’s largest white-tailed deer herd” according to the tourist brochure. It would
mean slogging through the bush for thirty miles.

Into the arms of the waiting cops.

How Ellen (Ellie) Kreuzweg started out in post-war Vienna and ended up in this situation in northern Ontario years later makes for an interesting and readable story in The Effects of Isolation on the Brain by Erika Rummel (2016, Inanna Publications).

Put The Effects of Isolation on the Brain on your ‘to read’ list for the coming year.

Ellen, the daughter of a father who deserted the German Army in WWII (and who would later desert Ellen) and an incapacitated mother that only Freud could explain away, has known isolation most of her life. It is Vera Katorski, whom Ellie meets in Vienna (and with whom her father deserts her mother for) that changes Ellie’s life. Vera shows an interest in Ellie and eventually, all three end up in Canada. Ellie’s father, who soon leaves Vera after a ‘knife incident’ warns Ellie to not get sucked into Vera’s life:

“Vera is corrosive. She gets under your skin. She doesn’t consider her actions. She has no scruples. She does what comes into her head.”

All too soon, Vera has Ellie role-playing her aunt who allowed her husband to molest Vera as a child. The role of her Uncle is played by the malevolent Robbie, a man whom Vera has hired as a property manager, but is also an armchair psychiatrist eager to try different scenarios out to ‘help’ Vera overcome her repressed memories. This ultimately leads to Ellie being holed up in Vera’s cabin in wintertime. There are some tense and frightening moments, such as when some teenage boys, thinking the cabin is boarded up for the winter, break in looking for liquor. What will the defenceless Ellie do?

I rated The Effects of Isolation on the Brain 3/5 stars on Goodreads. I liked the story and I read it in an afternoon while on vacation. I particularly liked how Ms Rummel cleverly inserted small excerpts from authors and poets such as Byron, Coleridge, Keats and others. Ellie writes her story in diary-like fashion since she has little else to do in the cabin.

“So I write. Out of boredom, or maybe from a need to confess, or because the criminal in his lonely hour gives to his eyes a magnifying power. (Coleridge)”

As author Lee Gowan is quoted as saying on the back cover:

“Take a few minutes from your busy day and find a quiet place to read Erika Rummel’s The Effects of Isolation on the Brain. You won’t regret it.”

Very true, I didn’t regret it for the story held my interest to see what exactly would happen to Ellie. Would Vera come to her rescue as promised? How would she avoid arrest for a crime she thinks she and Vera committed? Put The Effects of Isolation on the Brain on your ‘to read’ list for the coming year.


Erika Rummel has taught history at University of Toronto and Wilfrid Laurier University, Waterloo. She divides her time between Toronto and Los Angeles and has lived in villages in Argentina, Romania, and Bulgaria. The author of more than a dozen books of non-fiction, she has written extensively on social history. She is also the author of two novels, Playing Naomi and Head Games. She was awarded the Random House Creative Writing Award, 2011, for an excerpt of The Effects of Isolation on the Brain.

 

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