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Something happens to everyone

A quietly brilliant debut novel

6 August 2011

12:00 AM

6 August 2011

12:00 AM

My Former Heart Cressida Connolly

Fourth Estate, pp.240, 14.99

Towards the end of Cressida Connolly’s novel, one of the characters says of another, ‘I dare say she didn’t see her life as completely uneventful. Something happens to everyone.’

You could, I suppose, argue that not a huge amount happens to anyone in My Former Heart — there are no multiple pile-ups, cyborg invasions or satanic rituals. But what there is is something infinitely more rewarding: a succession of relationships analysed and orchestrated by a writer who seems able to peer directly into the human heart, to understand its follies and strivings, and to write about them with such sparkling originality that it makes you see the world afresh.

She takes three generations of the same family: mother, daughter and two granddaughters and follows them over the course of 60 years. When we first see the central character, Ruth, she’s alone in a cinema in Oxford Street in 1942, wondering where her mother has gone. By the end, she’s a grandmother herself — one who, rather to her surprise, has discovered an optimism, a delight in life, that had hitherto eluded her.

Connolly’s subject is both the simplest and most complicated of all: how people go through life, how they struggle for happiness, desperately seeking someone to cleave to on the one hand and — just as desperately — seeking privacy on the other. In some respects she’s a rather girlish sort of novelist, one who constantly bubbles with delight and enthusiasm. But there’s also a sharpness and a lack of sentimentality to everything she does, and it’s this tension between hard and soft that makes her writing so distinctive.

However, there’s more to it than that. This is Connolly’s first novel — she’s published a collection of short stories before — but you’d never guess it. Her characterisations are as deft as they are incisive — ‘Courage came easily to Iris’, she writes of Ruth’s mother, ‘but happiness was more difficult’ — while her descriptions are as memorable as any I’ve read in years.

An elderly parrot is described as hunching his shoulders ‘like a tiny, rumpled gangster’; the air in Holborn Tube station smells of ‘singed carpet’; while Ruth, struggling to remove her diaphragm for the first time, eventually discovers: ‘There was a way of hooking your finger under its rim, and yanking. It was rather like gutting a fish.’

She’s just as acute — and as wise — on the difference between the way people behave in private and in public. At one stage in the book, Ruth and her friend Ilse go shopping for a new mattress.

‘In the bed shop at the top of the town they tried out different mattresses, each taking it in turns to lie on her back, arms folded, like a carved figure from an old tomb. It struck Ruth that neither she nor Ilse ever actually slept in this position, nor even lay in it, yet assuming a more natural stance seemed too private a thing to do in full view of passers-by.’

I read My Former Heart with a delight that was undimmed except for frequent stabs of envy. I strongly suggest Spectator readers buy two copies — one to savour, and one to throw at the Man Booker judges who unaccountably left it off this year’s longlist.

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