After My Own Heart, Sophia Blackwell’s debut novel, is an engaging, witty, and uplifting read. The protagonist, Evie Day, is every inch the modern heroine: newly single, she boasts a complex love life, a housing problem, a selection of dodgy best friends and a career she doesn’t like. The novel unfolds in the first person, opening with Evie about to attend a self-help group that turns out, ironically, to ruin her life. So far, so Bridget Jones.
Blackwell both sets her novel in traditional chick-lit territory, capturing what makes it so enjoyable, and differentiates After My Own Heart in three ways. Firstly, the novel is shot through with lines of beauty, moving the prose into more literary territory. Evie is a singer, and some of the best prose centres around her passion and the emotions it generates: ‘Even my anger becomes beautiful, straining in my voice like dark, bottled blood, the fado of old, black-dressed women in hushed clubs’. Blackwell’s mastery of narrative allows Evie both to embark on beautiful descriptive passages and engaging conversation and to dissect the complex emotions of late twenty-somethings, without detriment to the plot or the pacing.
The second point of difference is Blackwell’s seriousness. Although there are wonderful moments of visual comedy (a gorgeous burlesque dancer called Vinyl gobbles sweets by the handful as scandalized dancers look on), Blackwell is interested in the notions of inheritance and progress. The current generation of twenty-somethings is often described in terms of immobility: the ‘boomerang’ generation, unable or unwilling to fully grow up. Evie might look like a glamorous adult in her ‘Marbella-moll drag’, but she does not know what she is doing: stuck in Publishing PR, waiting for her singing career to take off, she seeks advice from her father, an eccentric poet, and her mother, a fierce gypsy-like woman, and comfort in the arms of a childhood friend, Roshan.
Roshan is a man: like all the men in this book he is curiously insubstantial – artistic, tall, but unreal. His house is ‘immaculate’, his mixed heritage means he ‘doesn’t really do idiom’, he touches Evie with a ‘sketchy caress’ and he is tall – so tall that we are never really aware of his dimensions. He is like the wind, overpowering and then not there at all. This is Blackwell’s masterstroke. Roshan is the rebound character, who, in chick-lit, is usually a robustly described, rather jolly, and obviously unsuitable man.
But Evie Day is a lesbian. For her – and for the reader – Roshan is not merely a notch in a bedpost; he is not one man but all men, the sketched-out, amorphous notion of heterosexual relationships, the possibility of another kind of life. He is at once alluring, terrifying, and expendable.
Evie’s sexuality is the third point of differentiation in this novel. For most young, queer females, lesbian fiction tends to fall into two categories: terribly sad or sadly terrible. There are, of course, exceptions, but from The Well of Loneliness right up to Oranges are Not the Only Fruit via Djuna Barnes, and Sarah Waters, lesbian fiction tends towards themes of otherness and exclusion. Blackwell has counterpointed this trend with After My Own Heart. Evie is very much an insider: a Londoner, with a group of friends who span sexualities and genders. She is a modern woman, and her lesbianism, whilst central to the story, is not the dominant aspect of her character. It is absolutely wonderful to read a story where the sexuality of the central character is secondary to her incredible narrative voice, which bubbles with wit and neuroticism while it documents the small triumphs and disappointments that make up everyday life.
Sophia Blackwell has produced a well-balanced first novel, and clearly positions herself as a writer of beautiful, searching prose: a genuine voice for modern 20-somethings.