Tag Archives: The Tell-tale Heart

Books of the Year 2014: Part 3

The ConfabulistThe last of my ‘books of the year’ posts begins with one of my two September favourites, Steven Galloway’s The Confabulist which tells the story of the man who killed Houdini not once, but twice. Far from a straightforward reimagining of the Houdini story Galloway’s novel is a very clever bit of business which didn’t get nearly the attention it deserved. A very different kettle of fish, Matthew Thomas’s richly textured portrait of a marriage We Are Not Ourselves is a fine debut, one of the best I’ve read this year. Don’t be put off by its length – once begun Thomas’s compassionate characterisation and quiet, considered yet compelling writing carries you along without even thinking about its 600 pages.

In October Daniel Kehlmann’s F told the story of a very different family: three brothers, allCover image unhappy in their own way, and their father for whom a hypnotist’s performance turns his life upside down despite his emphatically professed scepticism. There are many pieces of Kehlmann’s narrative puzzle all of which click snugly into place partly due, of course, to Carol Brown Janeway’s excellent translation. October also saw the second of my non-fiction titles, Phillipe Claudel’s sometimes smelly, often fragrant, Parfums, made up of vignettes of a life remembered through smells. Claudel’s prose has a lovely, elegant expressiveness to it, trimmed of the flourishes and curlicues that some writers indulge in and translated beautifully by Euan Cameron.

Surprisingly, the often dull November turned out to be an excellent reading month. Mary Costello’s Academy Street is another very fine debut written in that pared back elegant style that I admire so much. Suffused with melancholy, it’s a heat-wrenching, beautifully written book in which Tess Lohan lives an attenuated life, marked by a deep yearning for an affinity, becoming ‘herself, her most true self, in those hours with books’. Delighted to see this one on the Costa First Novel shortlist. A new novel by Jane Smiley is always something to look forward to but the premise of Some Luck is a particularly attractive one. It’s the first in a trilogy which tells the story of an American century reflected and refracted through one family – the Langdons – beginning in 1920.  It ends in the When the Night ComesCold War years with a crisis in the heart of the family leaving you wanting much more just as the first in a series should. The next two instalments have already been written and I’m fascinated to know how Smiley has imagined the years between when she finished writing her trilogy and its end in 2020. And finally Favel Parett’s When the Night Comes surprised me with its captivating story of a crewman who cooks aboard a supply ship for an Antarctic research station and a thirteen-year-old girl recently arrived in Tasmania after her mother’s marriage breaks down. It’s also the story of the Nella Dan which sailed for twenty-six years in the service of the Australian government.  A beautifully expressed book, far more moving than I expected and one I hope won’t be overlooked.

And if I had to choose one out of the twenty-one? Not possible, I’m afraid. Last year it was a tie between The President’s Hat and The Last Banquet. This year it’s a three-way – Shotgun Lovesongs, With a Zero at its Heart and The Miniaturist – with Sedition just a smidgen behind. Waterstones, it seems, are more decisive than me: they’ve plumped for The Miniaturist alone.

Honourable mentions to Amanda Hope’s Wake, Jill Dawson’s The Tell-tale Heart, Emily Gould’s Friendship, Esther Freud’s Mr Mac and Me, and Linda Grant’s Upstairs at the Party.

If you missed the first two ‘books of the year’ posts and would like to catch up here’s the first and here’s the second.

What about you? What are your 2014 favourites?

The Tell-tale Heart: What happens when your heart is not your own

It’s just an organ – vital, of course – but it simply pumps blood around our circulatory systems in order that we can continue to live. If it weakens, we eventually die. Yet it’s become very much more than that in our lexicon of symbols – we speak from the heart, it’s recognised as the seat of all our emotion, it’s a big fat red velvet image pushed at us on Valentine’s Day, we use it as shorthand to indicate the difference between the rational and the emotional. What happens, then, if the heart you were born with gives up and you’re lucky enough to be given someone else’s? How does that affect you? That’s the intriguing question explored in Jill Dawson’s engrossing new novel about identity, history and the ultimate symbolCover image.

A drinker, incorrigible womaniser and negligent parent, more caught up in the chances of a quick shag than the concerns of others, fifty-year-old Patrick wakes up in Papworth Hospital, disorientated and hallucinating, to find his ex-wife Helen visiting him after his heart transplant. He’s an academic – an historian and ‘arch rationalist’ – but as he recovers he begins to speculate on the donor of his new heart, wondering if it might change him, and what those changes might be. Somehow the local press have found their way around strict hospital protocol revealing that his donor was sixteen-year-old Drew Beamish, killed in a motorcycle accident close to Littleport, the Fenland village where he lived. Dawson switches her narrative to the eighteenth century at this point telling the story of the Littleport Martyrs, two of whom were Drew’s ancestors. From there the narrative returns to Patrick alternating with Drew – Patrick reflecting on his past and planning a very different future as he makes his first forays out of the hospital, and Drew recounting his short life and what brought about his accident.

There’s often an element of history in Dawson’s fiction – she’s written about Rupert Brooke in The Great Lover, Wild Boy drew on a true story about a feral boy in post-Revolutionary France and Fred and Edie was based on the story of Edith Thompson and Frederick Bywaters, hung for the murder of Edie’s husband in the 1920s. The Littleport Riots section of The Tell-tale Heart recounts an incident which took place in 1816 and although at first I was a little jarred by the abrupt turn the narrative appeared to be taking, it meshes perfectly with the rest of this many-layered, accomplished novel which deftly demonstrates how history echoes and rebounds, repeating itself in a multitude of variations, particularly in a small, almost self-contained area like the Fens. Patrick, at first an unsympathetic character, becomes easier in his skin, denying all personality changes to his surgeon while demonstrating the opposite in his actions – but then who wouldn’t after such an extraordinary experience. Dawson has Maureen, his transplant co-ordinator, rehearse the theories of cellular memory, then steps quietly aside as Patrick speculates about the new feelings he seems to be experiencing and his urge to learn more about Drew. Drew’s story is poignantly told but there’s no over-sentimentalising. It’s a work of extraordinary skill and subtlety.

A few weeks ago I mentioned how little attention Helen Dunmore received in comparison to Barnes, McEwan, Amis et al, rarely unmentioned in the broadsheet reviews pages in one way or another. Jill Dawson falls into the same bracket, for me – accomplished, richly imaginative, quietly getting on with it, and thoroughly deserving of a prize or two. Maybe this will be her year.