And the award for the greatest villian of 2016 goes to ….
Well, there were a few around this year, weren’t there? But in purely fictional terms, there are two to choose from in Julie Myerson’s dual stranded The Stopped Heart: Eddie, the contemporary villain and James Dix, the Victorian one. That’s a bit of a spoiler as both men, at first appear to be knights in shining armour, but …
As for the eponymous stopped heart, there are several candidates:
a) The contemporary couple, Mary and Graham Coles, who are grieving for their daughters, when they move from London to an old cottage in the Suffolk countryside, hoping for a fresh start
b) The person whose remains are found in their orchard
c) The reader. Yes, indeed. If you pick this one up, prepare for some harrowing emotion, heart-stopping suspense, graphic cruelty and violence and, in my case, heartbreak. I really, really needed those human remains to be someone else.
Something awful has happened to the Coles’s daughters. What exactly isn’t revealed until a long way into the novel but there are echoes of their fate in the story told by 14-year old Eliza relating to events at the cottage 150 years previously. In the days when James Dix arrived and made himself indispensable as a farmhand, and as a lothario to the countrygirls, including Eliza. Remember she’s only 14. Old enough in those days. However, relations with James Dix are dangerous, and we’re not just talking about pregnancy.
Eliza’s sister, Lottie, never takes to James. In fact, she has premonitions about what is to come, and she is also able to see future inhabitants of the cottage. She sees Mary Coles’s shadow – the suggestion being that the weight of Mary’s grief bleeds through the fabric of time into the past. And that bleeding is reciprocal.
It’s an uncanny idea, and one I’m not comfortable with, but then this is an intensely uncomfortable read. Not only due to the unrelenting darkness of its main theme, the impossibility of keeping children safe, but also to the insistence of the author to confront the issues eyes-wide-open and take us not only into her character’s lives, but actually into their skins. The structure too is a challenge with switches between past and present signalled only by an empty line, and they are irritatingly fast and furious, particularly at the start. (A textual representation of time bleeding, I suppose.) Thankfully though, one narrative is 1st person, the other 3rd, and as the stories established themselves, I settled to the pace and found myself as in thrall to Myerson’s storytelling as Eliza was to James Dix.
I realise I haven’t said much about the contemporary villain, Eddie. Purposely, as I’d like to know if Myerson wrong-footed other readers as she did me. (Though with hindsight, all the clues are there.) Not that this makes him the villain of the year. On that score, James Dix stands head and shoulders above the rest. (He’s a red-headed Victorian, so you know he’s a bad ‘un.) Never have I wished retribution and vengeance on a character so strongly. However I saw the author’s expression when I expressed those wishes at AyeWrite in March. (I hadn’t finished the novel at that point and, yes, that’s how long ago I read this and I just can’t forget it.) I knew then, justice isn’t the point. Myerson has drawn a portrait of pure evil, and, the grim news is that evil sometimes gets away with it.