Wednesday, February 4, 2015

The Tell-Tale Heart by Jill Dawson

Who had the Fen Tiger's heart that could continue to pump like the wind-pump with its steady inexorable task when all life from the body was gone?  I knew anyway, knew without asking.  William Beamiss the elder.  Dear Pa.  Now launched into all eternity.                                                                       
As Jill Dawson's The Tell-Tale Heart begins, we meet Patrick Robson, a professor and philanderer who has just had the good fortune to have a successful heart transplant.  As he recovers, he becomes transfixed not only by his donor, Andrew Beamish's life, but with the more distant history of Drew's ancestors, farm laborers and shoemakers who were implicated in the Littleport Riots of 1816.  As Patrick rediscovers the life he had been in danger of losing, the stories of Drew Beamish and Willie Beamiss entwine with his own, in a way that is distinctly difficult to explain but which make for a compelling novel.

Dawson's flawed characters are ordinary, at best, but on the whole generally unlikeable, yet she portrays them in a gentle, sympathetic way that allows readers to look past their unpleasant surfaces and understand their hearts.  In fact, her male narrators are so utterly convincing that, at times, it's easy to forget that the author is a woman.  Patrick is a prickly sort,  a womanizer who had a child with another woman while still married to his wife.  He's curious, but not terribly sentimental about the origins of his newly acquired heart.  He's grateful with a sense of not deserving a new lease on life.  He doesn't believe all the hype about a new heart changing his preferences or his personality. The surgery and its aftermath are well handled, in that, while that Patrick doesn't change utterly, it's obvious he's going through something profound that's working a slow, realistic change in him. He's discovering things about his new life that he never bothered to consider in his old and finally seeing his past from a perspective other than his own. 
What did that feel like, to be a girl like Helen, unguarded, straightforward, who had allowed me to unpeel her like a mollusc from its shell, only to find that the exposure was devastating?  That entrusting yourself entirely to someone can make you want to die?  Helen, does it mean anything at all that I'm thinking these thoughts?  That I'm able to remember and construct things differently?  That for the first time I glimpsed it there from your point of view?  Does it mean it's all over for me, for the old me?
Drew, the heart's donor, is a sexually frustrated miscreant of sorts who just lost his father to a farming accident and is attempting to romance his much older teacher.  He's haunted by the story of his distant ancestor who was caught up in the Littleport Riots of 1816, whose story Dawson also weaves into her novel.  He's definitely not a very lovable character in his own right, but as his world crumbles a little more each day under the hopelessness of a future eking out a living in the Fens just like his father and his father's father and so on, even he becomes a character that we can understand and even relate to as he fails to outpace the frustration that pursues him that even he can hardly put into words.

The Tell-Tale Heart is no warm, fuzzy sentimental story about a heart that makes its way from tragedy to renewal, rather it is a much more penetrating look at interconnectedness between a boy and his forbear, between a man and the boy whose heart gives him a chance to carve out a more meaningful life.  It's a story about patterns repeating, about love that dooms and love that saves.  The Tell-Tale Heart takes aim at the heart's ability, both literal and figurative, to sustain us, and it definitely hits the mark.

The Tell-Tale Heart hits U.S. shelves on February 10th.

(Thanks to the publisher for providing me a copy in exchange for review consideration.)


  1. You have made this sound very fascinating and thought provoking!

  2. That is definitely a title which immediately captures my attention.