My Former Heart is Cressida Connolly’s first foray into full-length fiction, though her steady narrative and poised voice betray nothing of her newness to the form. Alluringly lyrical, the novel flits between three generations of women, portraying in exquisite detail the symphony of exultations and heartbreaks that accompanies each character’s transition into womanhood. Connolly takes her title from a Wordsworth poem and applies it to exceptionally poignant effect. Whether measured against the frailty of a whimsical encounter or the fierce throttle of a bout of depression, the sentiment that a learned, enlightened, potentially hardened heart awaits each character is enticing and distressing at once.
The novel is worth reading for its evocative imagery alone. Connolly’s knack for capturing Britain’s multifaceted image across the twentieth century is deeply engrossing and renders the novel’s backdrop as rich as its narrative. Snapshots from the Blitz are tellingly nostalgic – “a pale-green silk moiré box full of rose and violet creams from Fortnums” purchased as a “treat reserved for the [bomb] shelter,” for example – while minutiae like “delicious and slithery” slide guitars and an “ochre-coloured Indian bedspread [used] as a curtain” expertly hint at the indulgent wave of bohemianism engulfing London in the late 1970s. Connolly also excels with characterisation, offering a master class in the artistry of show-don’t-tell with enchanting illustrations of thoughts and behaviours that neatly encapsulate specific personas. A passing comment on the inclusion of cake during afternoon tea – a ritual one character insists on upholding despite wartime austerity measures – is particularly telling: “It was a matter of pride to Ruth’s grandmother that there should be cake despite the shortages, as if she was not bowing to the Enemy by allowing standards to fall.”
While the various plotlines are intriguing in themselves, it’s Connolly’s command of emotion that brings them to life. She navigates the delicate blossoms of first love, the alarming frustrations of motherhood and the devastation of deteriorating marriages with equal measures of grace and certitude, obviating any hesitation on the reader’s part to fully believe the ways her characters navigate these experiences. Connolly’s penchant for imagery results in wonderfully lush passages like the following: “For Iris happiness was something delicious but hard to keep hold of, like the almost-pins-and-needles sherberty feeling when summer air dries seawater on your skin.” When it comes to writing pain, Connolly is equally on form, assuming a quintessentially British stiff-upper-lip stoicism that relies on quiet scenes of grief – a stolen hour of weeping here, a bitter flash of resentment there –rather than dramatic outbursts and naked displays of anguish to invoke our sympathy. These richly nuanced illustrations of sorrow prove deeply satisfying in their defiance of the hysterical-woman trope and remain just as gratifying as the many passages depicting starry-eyed adoration and maternal contentment.
Despite the novel’s overwhelmingly female perspective, Connolly avoids any sort of political or feminist slant, allowing readers instead the freedom to make their own judgments on the decisions that lead the protagonists through their varying life paths. In doing so, she successfully puts forth a number of stirring perspectives on love and its various forms that remains unencumbered by the weight of authorial opinion. Whether Connolly herself approves of Iris’s conclusion that “happiness was not a precipice [but] a veranda, somewhere she need not fall from, nor scrabble to hold on to, but a place where she might stay and make herself comfortable” remains unclear, and the direction of Iris’s route thereafter is all the more exciting for it. My Former Heart is a quiet, albeit powerful, triumph.