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Publisher's Summary

National Best Seller

The Mystery of Right and Wrong is a masterwork from one of the country’s most critically acclaimed and beloved writers that is both compulsively listenable and heartstopping in the vital truth it unfolds. In a novel that grapples with sexual abuse, male violence and madness, Wayne Johnston reveals haunting family secrets he’s kept for more than 30 years.

Wade Jackson, a young man from a Newfoundland outport, wants to be a writer. In the university library in St. John’s, where he goes every day to absorb the great books of the world, he encounters the fascinating, South African-born Rachel van Hout, and soon they are lovers.

Rachel is the youngest of four van Hout daughters. Her father, Hans, lived in Amsterdam during the Second World War, and says he was in the Dutch resistance. When the war ended, he emigrated to South Africa, where he met his wife, Myra, had his daughters and worked as an accounting professor at the University of Cape Town. Something happened, though, that caused him to uproot his family and move them all, unhappily, to Newfoundland.

Wade soon discovers that Rachel and her sisters are each in their own way a wounded soul. The oldest, Gloria, has a string of broken marriages behind her. Carmen is addicted to every drug her Afrikaner dealer husband, Fritz, can lay his hands on. Bethany, the most sardonic of the sisters, is fighting a losing battle with anorexia. And then there is Rachel, who reads The Diary of Anne Frank obsessively, and diarizes her days in a secret language of her own invention, writing to the point of breakdown and beyond - an obsession that has deeper and more disturbing roots than Wade could ever have imagined.

Confronting the central mystery of his character Rachel’s life - and his own - Wayne Johnston has created a tour-de-force that pulls the listener toward a conclusion both inevitable and impossible to foresee. As he writes, “The Mystery of Right and Wrong is a memorialization of the lost, the missing women of the world, and of my world. I see it not as a dark book, but as one that sheds light - a lot of light - on things that, once illuminated, lose their power to distort the truth.”

©2021 Wayne Johnston (P)2021 Knopf Canada

Critic Reviews

The Mystery of Right and Wrong is among the most disturbing books I have ever read. With the intensity of a thriller, the intimacy of a diary, Wayne Johnston maps the warped world that people create for themselves, then force others to live within. It twists history and herstory, fiction and fact, into a dark fairy tale, an epic poem, a case study of pathology, a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions. Johnston shows us how hard it is to escape our family’s reach and how easily our coping mechanisms can become prisons of their own. An absolutely unforgettable novel. As morally and formally challenging as Nabokov. I’m still reeling.” —Ian Williams, Scotiabank Giller Prize-winning author of Reproduction

The Mystery of Right and Wrong is unyieldingly intense, a harrowing portrait of a family mired in madness, dark secrets and the long-term impact of sexual abuse that will stay with the reader long after the last page is turned.” —Calgary Herald 

“I don't expect to read, this year, anything more disturbing, more powerful, more brave, or more amazingly written than this latest from Wayne Johnston. You have to wonder how he kept this one inside him all this time.” —Linwood Barclay 

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