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Saturday, April 30, 2016

New Novel: Julie Myerson: "The Stopped Heart"

Author:  Julie Myerson
Title:  The Stopped Heart
Plot Type: Psychological Thriller with Ghosts  
Ratings:  Violence4; Sensuality3; Humor—1   
Publisher and Titles:  Harper  Perennial (3/2016)

                    PUBLISHER'S BLURB                     
     Internationally bestselling author Julie Myerson’s beautifully written, yet deeply chilling, novel of psychological suspense explores the tragedies—past and present—haunting a picturesque country cottage. 

     Mary Coles and her husband, Graham, have just moved to a cottage on the edge of a small village. The house hasn’t been lived in for years, but they are drawn to its original features and surprisingly large garden, which stretches down into a beautiful apple orchard. It’s idyllic, remote, picturesque: exactly what they need to put the horror of the past behind them.

     One hundred and fifty years earlier, a huge elm tree was felled in front of the cottage during a raging storm. Beneath it lies a young man with a shock of red hair, presumed dead—surely no one could survive such an accident. But the red-haired man is alive, and after a brief convalescence is taken in by the family living in the cottage and put to work in the fields. The children all love him, but the eldest daughter, Eliza, has her reservations. There’s something about the red-haired man that sits ill with her. A presence. An evil.


     Back in the present, weeks after moving to the cottage and still drowning beneath the weight of insurmountable grief, Mary Coles starts to sense there’s something in the house. Children’s whispers, footsteps from above, half-caught glimpses of figures in the garden. A young man with a shock of red hair wandering through the orchard.


     Has Mary’s grief turned to madness? Or have the events that took place so long ago finally come back to haunt her…? 

                    MY REVIEW                     
    From the very first paragraph, the reader realizes that something indescribably horrific has occurred as Myerson presents us with a sunny, blue-sky day that is immediately superseded by the appearance of a graphically portrayed womanblood-soaked and nearly speechlesswho brings news of a terrible tragedy. But that is just one of the awful occurrences that are at the heart of this novel, which interweaves two sets of characters and events: one from the present and one from a century and a half in the past.

     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 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.

                    ABOUT THE AUTHOR                     
     Julie Myerson is an English author and critic. She also works as a journalist and contributes reviews and articles to newspapers, magazines and radio programs. Myerson writes both fiction and nonfiction books. She is also known for having written a long-running column in The Guardian entitled "Living with Teenagers" based on her own family experiences.

     Her first novel, Sleepwalking (1994), was shortlisted for the John Llewellyn Rhys prize. Something Might Happen was shortlisted for the 2005 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award and 2005 WH Smith Literary Award. Her other works include The Touch (1996), Laura Blundy (2000), The Story of You (2006), Out of Breath (2007) and The Quickening (2013). She has also authored a few nonfiction works including Home: The Story of Everyone Who Ever Lived In Our House, which was dramatized on BBC Radio 4, Not A Games Person (2005) and The Lost Child (2009). Click HERE to read a more detailed biography of Julie Myerson.

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