Title: The Stopped Heart
Plot Type: Psychological Thriller with Ghosts
Ratings: Violence—4; Sensuality—3; Humor—1
Publisher and Titles: Harper Perennial (3/2016)
In the opening chapters, Laura and Graham Coles move in to a rickety old cottage in rural England, a house so authentic in detail that it still has its backyard water pump, overgrown garden and orchard, the rotting carcass of a long-fallen elm tree, and a rickety apple shed. The Coles are looking for peace and an escape from grief in the wake of the death of their two young daughters, the full details of which remain unexplained for several hundred pages (but with enough clues to alert the reader to the horror of their deaths). This story line is mostly delivered in the third person voice from Laura's perspective. They soon meet and become friends with a local couple, Eddie and Deborah.
Intermingling with Laura's story is that of Eliza and her family: her parents and her seven younger siblings, who lived in the same cottage 150 years ago. Eliza narrates events in her 13-year-old first-person voice. Her story revolves around a new addition to their household: a red-haired, snake-tattooed young man named James H. Dix, who first appears in the middle of a terrible storm, only to be nearly crushed by a lightning-struck elm tree. James wriggles his way into the family, at once feared and loved by the younger children. Soon, he becomes an object of fascination, and then lust, for Eliza. Eliza and her sisters and brothers are wonderfully portrayed, with their innocence and humor heightening the sense of tragedy that awaits them.
Myerson binds the two narratives closely, with no separation or clarifying symbols or punctuation between them. Each chapter contains multiple sub-chapters, each of which begins with an extra line space and an all-caps opening sentence, but those clues do not necessarily signal a change in the narrator. At first, this mash-up of time and voice is a bit confusing, but soon a rhythm establishes itself, and the two stories begin to overlap like waves, as if grief and horror experienced in the present can penetrate the past, and past events can seep into the present. When Laura starts hearing the ghostly voices of children and begins seeing a red-headed man flashing through the hedge, and when little Lottie (Eliza's sister) wants to name a kitten Merricoles (a futuristic reference to Mary Coles) and speaks of a “lady with the long black hair. The one that cries all the time…” I have to admit that shivers ran down my spine. Eventually, this intersection of stories graduates from ethereal to physical when Graham makes a gruesome discovery in the back garden.
The two story lines have some commonalities: male figures (James and Eddie) who offer false hope, deceitful love, and phony comfort; children who suffer abuse and death; and parents who plunge into a deep well of anger and grief. Both Eliza and Laura fall under the spells of the duplicitous men, with wildly different outcomes. Eliza falls hard for James, even though her first impression of him is that, "He had the look of someone who'd just walked out of a room where bad things had happened." Mary finds herself being stalked by Eddie, but soon finds that she is able to talk to him about subjects she can't speak about to her husband. Myerson adds reality and suspense to the mix by introducing Graham's rebellious, Goth-girl daughter, Ruby, (by an earlier marriage) and her secretive, tight-lipped friend, Lisa, who also gets caught up in the false promise of love and escape.
Myerson enhances the horror of her story by setting it in a comforting nest of elegant descriptions of normal, everyday life and the wonders of nature. A bee leaving a bloom, "falling backwards into the air, lifting off and away"; Lizzie's "wild, smashed feeling" when she gets her first look at the sea; Lizzie watching "the great black crows swooping up and down over the hazy, lilac-brown clods of muddy earth" at twilight; and a sunny day when "the hollyhocks unfurled their hairy buds and stood in their lemon and salmon rows."
Some of the nature images foreshadow the violence that is just around the corner: "A wren started to build its nest under the eaves...and as usual the cat sat and watched, waiting to kill the fledglings just as soon as they hatched." And, on a warm, wet morning, "The earth on the grave was fresh and sad and brown."
This is the same technique that David Lynch uses so beautifully (and horribly) in the opening scene of his iconic film Blue Velvet (which moves from chirping birds and white picket fences to a tragic front-yard accident; then to a trip through the dark, murderous, bug-dominated underworld of the green grass; and eventually to a severed human ear—all in the first few moments). It's a perfect illustration of how evil can lurk under the surface of a seemingly "normal" human existence.
This is a dark and suspense-filled novel that is hard to put down once you've read the first few pages because you get pulled immediately into the heart-breaking emotional drama and ever-tightening tension that build to nearly unbearable levels. Unfortunately, Myerson's resolution of Mary's grief is too abrupt, and it lacks a plausible catalyst. In the final pages, her sudden, baseless change of heart about the cottage, her grief, and her future comes out of nowhere, providing a convenient, but ultimately unsatisfying, conclusion to an otherwise well-told story.
Some reviewers have compared this novel to Gone Girl and Girl on the Train, so if you enjoyed those books, you'll probably be intrigued with this one. Click HERE to read or listen to an excerpt from The Stopped Heart on its Amazon.com page by clicking on either the cover art or the "Listen" icon. Click HERE to read the first two chapters on the novel's HarperCollins page.