Felice: A Travelogue


348 pages
ISBN 0-88982-084-8





Reviewed by Matt Hartman

Matt Hartman is a freelance editor and cataloguer, running Hartman Cataloguing, Editing and Indexing Services.


Harlow is the former chairman of the Creative Writing Department of the University of British Columbia, where he still teaches part of the year. His five previous novels — Royal Murdock, A Gift of Echoes, Scann, Making Arrangements, and Paul Nolan — havenot prepared the reader for Felice: A Travelogue, the journey of the awakening of a woman’s consciousness and her sense of what it must and should mean to be free.

Felice Gentry, two months past a hysterectomy, sits in her Vancouver home with a blank journal on her lap. The book has been given to her for her recent birthday by her dentist-husband, Ray.

He had written on the flyleaf: “you’ve always wanted to write.”

Felice has nothing to write. Point Grey matron, mother of three grown children, appendage of her husband at his golf and yacht clubs, overseer of a house in which she feels as familiar as in a well-worn dress, Felice has made all the right moves, until now, when, “forty-eight years old and neutered,” she feels “withered away as if she were the State and the family was a Marxist society.”

What changes Felice, what pushes her forward into independence and identity is a trip to Poland, made at Ray’s insistence, to visit old friend Ben Collins, an official with the Canadian Embassy in Warsaw. What begins as the start of a vacation becomes, in Poland, an excursion by Felice into mental and physical spaces whose existence she has never suspected. Her “travelogue” is an exploration into her emotional and sexual life, her compass is her newly discovered empathy with the oppressed and the struggles of those for whom power is as deadly and deadening as the Nazis’ insanity in Auschwitz.

It is at Auschwitz where Felice’s consciousness changes forever, when she witnesses the suicide of a former camp victim. And it is also at Auschwitz where she discovers in herself an understanding about what freedom really means. With the realization of the characters of Paula, the Auschwitz suicide, and of Pani Irena, Ben’s maid, and with the electric current of the Solidarity Movement serving as backdrop for Felice’s awakening, Harlow has fashioned an internal narrative of the strong human search for freedom and self-release. Felice’s movement from the security of her Canadian home to the terror of ZOMO, the Polish secret police — the realization of her own growth and independence in the face of her husband’s need to control — this movement is told (remarkably) from Felice’s point of view. It is rare when a male novelist dares to attempt a female persona; rarer still when he brings it off as strongly as Harlow has, in what is his most successful work to date.


Harlow, Robert, “Felice: A Travelogue,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed February 25, 2024, https://cbra.library.utoronto.ca/items/show/35844.