The Tell-Tale Heart


I was put onto Jill Dawson by a friend on-line; I hadn't heard of her before but she is a prolific English novelist. The Tell-Tale Heart (in large print) was, alas, the only title available from my library, but it was a terrific, thoughtful and very accomplished novel and I'm definitely going to keep an eye out for her other books.

The Tell-Tale Heart threads together three narratives -- the story of Patrick, a middle aged professor who has just received a heart transplant; swooping back a couple of centuries, the true history of a young man, Willie Beamiss, caught up in the Fen riots of 1823; and swooping forward again to Willie's descendant, Drew Beamish, the donor of Patrick's new heart. Connections between these three characters unfold and echo across the novel, and ultimately Patrick, despite his protestations, finds his life irrevocably changed by his experience. 

I especially enjoyed the sections in the voice of Willy Beamiss, which were a delight to read and gave the book a real emotional and historical depth. These sections were based on court records from the Fen Riots, an episode in history about which I knew absolutely nothing; in fact, the Fen country in the east of England is an area I only know from books: Dorothy L. Sayers' The Nine Tailors, and Elizabeth Gouge's novels set in Ely. The Essex Serpent and Arthur Ransome's Secret Water have something of the same flat, marshy atmosphere, though technically they're not set in the Fens.

Another example of a weird book coincidence -- I found myself reading three books centred on hearts and death at the same time: The Tell-Tale Heart, When Things Are Alive They Hum (a young adult title about two sisters, one of whom needs a heart transplant) and Being Mortal, a non-fiction exploration of growing old and wearing out. Strange how these things happen, totally by chance!

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