Book review: The Stopped Heart makes little sense, in terms of plot or character

Julie Myerson’s new novel takes on serious themes – the death of children, mental breakdown – but ends up grossly inadequate to the task

PUBLISHED : Friday, 19 February, 2016, 4:01am
UPDATED : Friday, 19 February, 2016, 4:00am

The Stopped Heart

by Julie Myerson

Jonathan Cape

Mary, the protagonist of Julie Myerson’s latest novel, moves with her husband Graham to a house that she senses has an unquiet history. This history, intersecting with the present in alternating segments, concerns 13-year-old Eliza, who lived in the house with her younger siblings more than 100 years before.

Through skilful clues we learn that Mary’s young children died in horrific circumstances. These are mirrored to an extent in the past narrative, which also deals with the abuse and murder of children. Myerson depicts mental states brilliantly: when Mary asks Graham if he ever gets lonely, he looks at her “with a relaxed kind of interest, as if she were asking him to think of his favourite colour or a number between one and seven”. “Love,” Myerson writes, in reference to a relationship that has endured more than most, is just “the smallest sliver of a so much larger, more complicated thing”.

Mary’s grief is captured when she is “struck by how pointless it felt to push a metal hook with an ornament hanging off it through a hole in her ear”, or when someone mentions a 10-year-old boy and she thinks: “His mother has managed to keep him safe for a whole decade.”

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It is not clear, however, what the past narrative adds, besides being an alternate plot device. Both narratives concern crimes against children committed by a man and are narrated by females. Mary experiences some resolution; Eliza does not. Characters are bewildering. James Dix, the villain of the past narrative, who appears as if by magic beneath a tree felled in a storm, tells Eliza: “You’re mine … It’s you I came for”; then, when he gets her, that her love has “poisoned” him and driven him to the crime he commits, which doesn’t itself make sense.

Eliza’s father goes from being hardly present – James’ abuse of Eliza, her mother, her siblings and the family dog takes place under his nose – to leading a posse out for revenge. Eliza moves from detesting James to urinating in ecstasy during their sexual encounters. She protests only feebly when he murders a neighbour in her presence, bickers, then laughs with him about it. The implausibility of the characters is reflected at the level of plot, with every gory eventuality visible a mile off – though perhaps this is unavoidable in a novel in which supernatural intimations are the norm.

As for Mary, she embarks on an affair then can’t bear to leave the wronged wife uncomforted days later when the husband elopes with a 15-year-old. At the conclusion, she discovers the house that has traumatised her for months “feels like home”; “This place. I love it,” she pronounces. Not long ago she saw a butchered girl behind the apple store. I have no idea what has heralded this change of heart or what Myerson is driving at here; the ending feels like an abrupt, convenient and grossly inadequate conclusion to a narrative of horrific loss and mental fragmentation.

The Guardian