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March 2003
© 2003 Ernest Lilley / SFRevu
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Healer by Amber Hayward
Red Deer Press Paperback: ISBN 1895836891 PubDate Apr 03
Review by Asta Sinusas
pages List price CDN$19.95  
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“It was an impressive act, raising the dead, and not something Manoel had expected to be called upon to do that day.” That line begins the novel The Healer and it is soon revealed that Manoel has something called "onca" power, which gives him the ability to heal people by compelling their bodies with the power of his thoughts. Growing up in Brazil, there is a line of healers, but only one in a generation is given the gift. However, as Manoel races to the scene of the car crash, what he encounters is unusual. The stranger’s body is healing itself, and Manoel soon realizes that he is in the presence of another onca power. However, as soon as the other healer awakes, he shouts at Manoel to get away from him, declaring that the man didn’t heal him, but was trying to kill him. Manoel is shocked and dismayed but soon learns the story of the other healer, Caldos. As a young child, a greedy individual usurped Caldos’s gifts, and now Caldos will stop at nothing in his quest for power. However, any oncas out there are a threat to his position, as they are proof that he is not special. He is gaining a following by calling himself a healer and curing people with a “laying of hands”. In Brazilian society, which is so committed to the Church, he is seen as a miracle worker.

When Manoel gets a message from Maria, a woman from his hometown village, he is intrigued. It is revealed that Maria, after seven children, has given birth to a deaf mute. She calls on Manoel as her last resort, persisting in her belief that Manoel and his father were frauds, but her baby’s situation has her changing her mind. Manoel discovers that Joao’s situation is irreversible, even with his power, but discovers the child has the onca in him, and asks his family to work with the baby, as he can mentally communicate with him and teach him to at least crawl and take care of himself. However, the threat of Caldos looms threateningly, and he has to find a way to hide the child from Caldos’s influence. Manoel has to flee, but he asks that Harold, a Canadian social worker who he meets and befriends, to look out for the baby.

The story is then picked up and told through the eyes of Joao’s caretakers, first his mother Maria then his sister Vera, and also by Harold. Because Hayward is using a third person limited point of view, what the reader receives is a look at the character’s lives and world, of which Joao is a part, but only one of their concerns. It seems that as soon as the onca power is revealed to the readers and they are convinced of its veracity, the rest of the novel is about the struggle to hide that power and to keep Joao away from Caldos’s evil forces. It is only at the end, when Joao and Ana, Vera’s daughter, begin to share their thoughts through onca power, that magic seems to reassert itself.

The Healer brings to mind the magic realism and tone of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Hayward succeeds in conveying the feel of the Brazilian setting and its society, with all its lush richness and Latin machismo. The first in a trilogy, this book seems to be setting up the plot for the next two, and with the dearth of magic in the middle of the book, the most enchanting thing about the novel is the first time the reader encounters Harold’s voice.  The Canadian character gives a North American perspective to the story and the reader is allowed to see such a unique society through the eyes of someone else who is trying to grasp it and is just as perplexed at its strange customs. It is Harold who becomes magical, as the Brazilian characters instead do everything in their power to suppress the magic that Manoel and Joao possess.  Part of the brilliance of Hayward, is to lift the reader’s awareness up to a spiritual plane, and then bring it down to the day-to-day sufferings of her characters. The Healer is a compelling literary novel that combines with magic realism and a Brazilian setting to become a very unique gift to the reader looking for something rare and out of the ordinary.

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