It's a bittersweet moment when I sit down to write my thoughts about a book like The Tell-Tale Heart by Jill Dawson, because after about the first twenty pages of reading I knew I was going to have to pitch up here and serve myself up some good old-fashioned humble pie.
As recently as the last Endsleigh Salon I was denouncing Jill Dawson as a writer I just couldn't fathom. Someone had read Fred and Edie, published in 2009 and my unhelpful contribution to the discussion was
'Well I didn't like Watch Me Disappear...and I wasn't that enamoured with The Great Lover either...'
I remember the former seeming to come too soon in my mind after the Soham murders to feel comfortable and the latter just got me completely confused between the fiction and the reality of Rupert Brookes's life, and I tend not to like being messed with in that way.
Me and Jill Dawson's writing were never going to hit it off I may as well give up.
And that was that...until Jill's latest novel The Tell-Tale Heart arrived.
Big sigh from me...now what is she up to I thought...John Self over at Asylum will love it because he's a huge fan and I won't because I'm not, what am I missing...
Oh well, this..
Patrick, a fifty-year-old professor, drinker and womaniser, has been given six months to live. In a rural part of Cambridgeshire, a teenager dies in a motorcycle accident. When his heart is transplanted into Patrick's chest, the lives of two strangers are forever conjoined.
Patrick makes a good recovery, but has the odd feeling that his old life 'won't have him'. Patrick becomes bewitched by the story of his heart, ever more curious about the boy who donated it, his ancestors, the countryside he grew up in. What exactly has Patrick been given?
The Tell-Tale Heart is a mesmerising, atmospheric novel by one of our most critically acclaimed contemporary writers - a novelist whose beguiling and mysterious stories intrigue and delight while exploring important questions of who we are and the forces that shape us. This is Jill Dawson at the height of her powers.
Enough to pique the State Registered Nurse in me for long enough to sit down and read the first few pages...
'I'm a burglar, carrying off the heart of someone else, one that doesn't belong to me. I'd like to go back to my old self, to my old life, but I have a curious, powerful certainty : my old self won't have me...'
and once I had read that I was in for the duration.
Patrick has undergone what is termed in the book as a 'beating-heart' transplant, where the donor heart is kept beating by artificial means for as long as possible. He has been suffering from cardiomyopathy and that, as a starter for ten, felt like a clever choice of diagnosis for Jill Dawson to make. The word alone has that aura of thickening and apathy and lethargy about it, and though cardiomyopathy can take many forms the one that came to my mind was the grossly enlarged and flabby heart that has lost its elasticity and efficient beating capability. It fits Patrick's attitude towards life and love and women perfectly; incapable of feeling, a confident, selfish, arrogant and domineering man who, with several relationships and children behind him seems completely out of touch with his emotions.
Thomas Wright in his book Circulation William Harvey's Revolutionary Idea,which has been on my shelf since it won the Wellcome Trust Book Prize in 2012 (and which I now see is excellent and must come off the shelf) suggests that..
'While the idea of a feeling heart no longer makes physiological sense, it nevertheless survives in everyday language and so remains familiar to us. We continue to speak of 'tender' and stony' hearted people; we can still 'take' heart, or 'lose' heart at a sudden turn of events, and hearts will be melted, wounded and broken as long as the English language endures.'
In 1628 William Harvey 'demolished centuries of anatomical and physiological orthodoxy' with his 'circulation' theory about movement of blood around the human body. In his day the heart held great cultural prestige holding an 'exalted place in the hierarchy of organs'...
'How little of a Man is the Heart and yet [it] is all by which he is.'
Considering for a moment the heart as the repository of emotions and feelings... thinking again of that pain felt say after a loss...it doesn't hurt on the right hand side of your chest... it physically hurts on the left, over your heart, which makes the plot that Jill Dawson pursues a fascinating one.
Maybe that's Patrick's old heart on the right, if so there isn't much room for 'feelings' is there...
Having no personal experience of transplant, or of nursing transplant patients, I'm not sure I had ever given much thought to all the issues involved in becoming the bearer of someone else's heart, but set in and around Ely and the Fens, with the cathedral ' a great whale rising above a white foamy sea,' the plot winds itself right back to the beginning of the nineteenth century and the lives, and trials and tribulations of the ancestors of Patrick's donor's family...
'Fixed when we set out hearts on something. Constancy is our middle name. Fierce stubborness some might call it, and it takes different shape in each of us...with me it was love..'
I don't want to give anything away at all but there are moments of deep significance within those early nineteenth-century lives, their heartfelt beliefs, and their endings, that re-sound into the present; echoes of those beating hearts of oak, and there were moments in the book when I was genuinely quite overcome with it all...
'Where am I before I'm born, then and after my death? Pa smiled and told me not to fear. I was where he was now ; in dreams, in the memories of my children. Pull your sledges over the frozen lake, never stop them from squealing with joy...'
It takes some time for Patrick to realise he has inherited far more than a new and better set of ventricles from young Drew Beamish.
'A new heart also will I give you...' Ezekiel 36
There is a brief moment in the book when Patrick, as a child, watches a game of snooker with his dad. Now I can't pretend to know a lot about snooker beyond what I pick up from seeing the odd bit of a game on TV, but I know enough to know that the object, apart from potting the black and winning is also to stymie your opponent with a cunningly placed ball, and it isn't hard to use that analogy with Patrick. This flippin' new heart keeps on ambushing and snookering him, forcing him unwittingly into courses of action that his old self might never have considered. The old Patrick was definitely a 147 break man, right colour, right order, done and dusted let no one stand in his way, and if they do they are for trampling...the new Patrick...well dare I say it... might he be...kind hearted.
By the time this passage from John Dryden's translation of Horace Odes appears in the narrative (and I won't say why) Patrick's cardio-renaissance is definitely beating to a new rhythm..
Happy the man, and happy he alone,
he who can call today his own:
he who, secure within, can say,
Tomorrow do thy worst, for I have lived today.
Be fair or foul, or rain or shine
the joys I have possessed, in spite of fate, are mine.
Not Heaven itself, upon the past has power,
but what has been, has been, and I have had my hour.
And talking of snookered, I think Jill Dawson has completely snookered me with The Tell-Tale Heart. Suffice to say I plan to go back and read her other novels with new eyes in, and I know for sure that jaws will hit the floor and there will be much guffawing when, after my declaration last month, I go back to the Endsleigh Salon and confess...
'I've just read this really brilliant book by Jill Dawson...'