Julie Myerson captures the sorrow that surpasses all understanding

The stricken heroine of The Stopped Heart, numb with grief, retires to a quiet country cottage — only to find it full of menace and unquiet spirits

5 March 2016

9:00 AM

5 March 2016

9:00 AM

The Stopped Heart Julie Myerson

Cape, pp.402, £12.99, ISBN: 9780224102490

As its title suggests, Julie Myerson’s tenth novel is about stoppage: the kind that happens when one suffers a loss so absolute and cataclysmic that there seems no possible way forward; when the future seems not merely unthinkably disrupted but also irrelevant. For the majority of people lucky enough to live out their days beyond war zones, barbaric regimes and disaster areas, such events usually come no closer than a news item; but even — perhaps especially — when the calamity is near at hand, we so often find ourselves at once desperate to empathise and yet incapable of imagining.

Mary, whom we gradually discover has lost both her young daughters, understands that people can’t understand; often, she can barely understand herself. Her default position has become one of passivity and inertia, even as her husband Graham attempts to restore some form of normality by relocating them to a country cottage. She doesn’t want to work, or to garden, or to play with the dog Graham buys her; instead, she wants to continue contemplating what has happened to her, in case it ever becomes possible to believe.

Myerson has frequently written about maternal loss in novels such as Laura Blundy and Then, and she has also been abidingly interested in exploring the supernatural, the long-forgotten past and the techniques of suspense fiction to convey the transfer of traumatic emotion between people, places and times. This novel is no exception, for it is about seepage as well as stoppage; interwoven with Mary’s third-person story is teenage Eliza’s, which took place about a century previously. As Myerson’s format suggests — the two narratives are not separated into discrete chapters, but run in and out of one another — past and present do not simply intrude, but profoundly shape one another.

Eliza’s tale is, in many ways, the more actively terrifying: the danger is all ahead, despite a gory throw-forward on the novel’s very first page. But we know roughly the direction it’s coming from — the red-headed stranger who blows into the farm during a storm, gets his feet under the table and begins to cast a charismatic spell over Eliza, her parents and her numerous younger siblings. Chief among them is Lottie, who seems to understand what is to happen, and to see Mary in the far-flung future; Mary, meanwhile, is beginning to sense that her idyllic cottage is filled with a host of unquiet spirits.

At the level of what some are currently calling ‘griplit’ — intense and dark psychological thrillers — The Stopped Heart works pretty well; it is not easy to cast aside. And Myerson is a practised and evocative writer, good at handling such tricky subjects as teenage desire and stepmotherly ambivalence. But the novel also seemed to sacrifice some of its promise — to explore the enormity of aberrant loss — to a rather more cartoonish style of horror. Put simply, by the end the body count is shocking but also unilluminating; it interested me that the character I found most disturbing was Mary’s somewhat creepy, needy and nerdy neighbour rather than Myerson’s more overtly violent creations.

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