Jill Dawson is one of the most frequently-reviewed authors on this blog. Her books seem to me to epitomise the best of what might be called traditional literary fiction. There is always a strong story, and clear characters, but there is a sharpness and darkness to her work, and some element of novelty – not to say control of narrative voice – which sets it apart from the pack.
The Tell-Tale Heart has a concept which is summed up by one blurb like this: “a thought-provoking tale of a man who has a heart transplant and finds his feelings – and capacity for love – seem mysteriously to have changed.” This is an almost archetypal elevator pitch, and one which had me sucking air in over my teeth, like a disappointed mechanic. If the book hadn’t been by Dawson, I might have gone no further – but predictably, she has done unpredictable things with this high concept.
The story is told, to begin with, by Patrick, a 52-year-old university professor. He is a bracingly unsympathetic narrator – though his refusal to ingratiate himself with the reader is itself quite an appealing characteristic. He resents being made to feel bad: “I hate tears. Tears make you the villain and the unfeeling one, regardless of what you feel, simply because you can’t produce them yourself.” He is a womaniser, with two children to two women, and a recently ended affair with a student which has thrown his future of his career into doubt. Indeed, his future generally is not what it was and he has recently been given a heart transplant in a new type of surgery: ‘beating-heart’ surgery, where the transplant organ is kept alive during the operation. Typically enough, Patrick becomes interested in the donor of his heart, and typically enough (not much story without it), he finds out who this is when his post-transplant counsellor Maureen accidentally spills the beans (this is a work of fiction). And did I mention that incorrigible Patrick thinks Maureen has a thing for him? The story then switches between here and now, and … elsewhere, elsewhen.
Throughout Patrick’s story, the heart is centre stage, both his own heart – his own hearts, old and new (“I feel an ache in my chest, a pain so severe it’s like something thrashing in there”) – and the heart in history and culture. “Like Thomas Hardy; wasn’t he, horribly, buried without his heart? Some dim memory of a story about a biscuit tin. The dog eating the heart, which had been kept in a biscuit tin…” His daughter visits him in hospital – he’s never been much of a dad either – and, gripped by the expected lifefulness that would naturally follow near-death surgery, the emotional lability, he begins to think he is undergoing a personality change. “I have a curious, powerful certainty: my old self won’t have me.” He walks a fine line between unreformed and capable of change: when he gets a letter from the family of his donor, and his first response is to comment on the “cheap paper” and “old-fashioned writing,” it’s hard to tell whether he’s sneering or sympathetic.
As well as Patrick, we hear from Willie Beamiss, a young man involved in the Littleport riots of 1816 (“I was quite in the suds about Politics”); those involved were punished harshly as a warning to others (“Now launched into all eternity”). As well as having contemporary parallels with the increased sentences handed out to rioters in England in 2011, Beamiss’s story introduces the questions explored in the rest of The Tell-Tale Heart: where is the seat of emotion and thought? What divides them, brings them together, gives one power over the other? This takes us back to Patrick’s story, and that of a third narrator, as they both make us think about the heart as historically considered responsible for both lust and love, when these feelings are now attributed to organs that run in opposite directions from the heart. These, more or less, are what the two parts of the story are driven by: the things men do, and arrange to have done to them, to satisfy these wants or needs.
What it becomes is a book about sex and power, told in two ways. (Patrick self-justifyingly says that the two mothers of his children “shouldn’t have put up with me, given me that glimpse of power”). In this The Tell-Tale Heart seems to me to be a companion piece to Dawson’s 2006 novel Watch Me Disappear, with its clear-eyed look at childhood sexuality. Here, as there, the book is riddled with suggestion and refuses easy answers, though there is a hint of where Patrick’s disdain for women comes from. Like all Dawson’s books, it’s busy – it whispered things in my ear all the way through. It is wide-ranging but retains a strong hold on its story – which might explain why I find it so difficult to write about satisfactorily. Patrick, made increasingly reflective by recent events, recalls that his mother told him “There’s more to life than winning things, you know. Just be a good man, that’s all I ask.” “Oh Mam,” thinks Patrick, now. “Why did you set the bar so high?”