Tuesday 22 March 2016

Mini Book Reviews: The Rental Heart by Kirsty Logan, Harriet by Elizabeth Jenkins

The Rental Heart and Other Fairytales - Kirsty Logan

Kirsty Logan's first novel, The Gracekeepers, was one of my most memorable reads of last year; a haunting, hypnotic tale set in a watery future world. When I bought it on one of my London bookshopping trips, the chatty bookseller told me that it had originated from one of the short stories in Logan's award-winning collection. The burnt-out doll's house on the front cover represents well the unsettling nature of the stories. These are not cosy tales; many are about longing and disappointment, making do and wanting more. Each sentence is carefully crafted, made up of what is said and what is left unspoken, and I had to linger a while after each story, taking in what I'd just read, before I could move on to the next.

Some of these stories are more obviously fairytales: the tales of witches in the woods, clockwork men, children with antlers and tails. Others borrow familiar tropes and imagery, and twist them around to make you rethink. The settings are contemporary, historical, and fantastical: France and Scotland, Australia and New Orleans, a blending of the magical and the mundane,

I wonder what it is about the language of fairytales that is so appealing to the adult reader. Some of
Writers have reclaimed the storytelling form, rejecting the sugar-sweet sanitised fables that the Victorians, and later Walt Disney, marked out with their own style. Kirsty Logan uses the fantastical settings and techniques to explore darker themes, primal fears, the shadows that lurk at the edge of sight.

Harriet - Elizabeth Jenkins

Elizabeth Jenkins' 1934 novel Harriet was another Bookshop Crawl purchase, one of two books republished and sold by Persephone Books.  The titular Harriet is a wealthy thirty-two year old woman sought in marriage by Lewis Oman, an unscrupulous cad who is quite clearly only interested in her money. Harriet has an unspecified learning disability, and she takes little convincing that Lewis is in love with her, but no one else is fooled for a moment. Yet Harriet has no legal protection: she may have a child's mind, but she is an adult of independent means, and if she chooses to marry an unsuitable man, there is nothing to prevent her from doing just that. With Mrs Ogilvy, the reader has to sit back and watch disaster unfold.

Elizabeth Jenkins raises a lot of uncomfortable questions in her narrative: what can Mrs Ogilvy do? To meddle in her daughter's affairs will set her new son-in-law against her, and yet for her to submit so easily when she knows Lewis is manipulating Harriet, to conclude with her husband that "Lewis is a most objectionable young man, no doubt, but many people's daughters do much worse," seems defeatist, almost callous. What could Mrs Ogilvy do?

Harriet is a disquieting read, for the insight given into the minds of Lewis Oman and his family, as their manipulation of a vulnerable woman slips into neglect and abuse. Jenkins never shows the family planning their cruelties, just how they excuse their increasingly brutal behaviour. Her skill is in letting the reader work out for themselves what will not be explicitly spelled out by the narrative or admitted by Harriet's husband and in-laws, even to themselves. The more they shut Harriet out of sight and put her out of mind, the more excuses they make to themselves, because, to them, Harriet is an inconvenience, an embarrassment, not a full human being. And with such an attitude, the consequences seem inevitable. Jenkins took the facts from the reports of a real-life trial, and spun a tale that could attempt to explain how seemingly-ordinary people could be capable of great evil. An understated but chilling and important read.

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