The Half-Lives of Pat Lowther / by Christine Wiesenthal

By Christine Wiesenthal. University of Toronto Press, 489 pp, $65, hardcover.

Vancouver poet Pat Lowther haunts us more than 30 years after her death. The Half-Lives of Pat Lowther by Christine Wiesenthal, a fat biography that's by turns critical and ideological but always riveting, is only the latest proof of this-the latest and the loudest.

Lowther was just emerging from the underbrush of little poetry magazines when, in 1975, she was murdered by her husband. She was 40. Roy Lowther, who at first insisted that his wife must have been killed by a mysterious stranger but admitted to disposing of the body, was a poet wannabe, frightened by the validation that was starting to come her way. He died in prison in 1985, and Wiesenthal doesn't waste time on the exact nature of his psychosis. She calls him a "rigidly unoriginal and otherwise almost entirely unremarkable man" and "the catalyst for the demise of his wife's finer and stronger soul".

Wiesenthal resents the fact that Roy Lowther's testimony and the mountain of documents assembled by his defence team constitute the largest and most vivid body of evidence for the life of the person he killed and thus, inevitably, have helped to shape all subsequent inquiry and interpretation. But there's also Pat Lowther's often-praised body of work, which Wiesenthal discusses in detail. As to the period, Wiesenthal, who was 12 when Lowther died, isn't drawing on her own recollection, yet she seems to me to get everything right. She makes us forget how often the story of the rise of a distinctive Vancouver poetry has been told and retold.

At times, she reconstructs the crime like a reporter, but elsewhere writes like an angry polemicist intent on manifesto. The book's argument is sharply focused in places but wanders in others, with the diction at once academic and highly colloquial. The Half-Lives is essentially a narrative of the writing life, of progress from silence to communication through the medium of imagination. It is a demanding book that deserves the serious attention it insists on from the reader.