John Preston

Something happens to everyone

A quietly brilliant debut novel

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.

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