The Tell Tale Heart, Jill Dawson’s eighth and most recent novel, is a wonderfully crafted, heart-felt homage to history, humanity and the sprawling landscape of the Fens, beckoning the reader to throw off the weight of contemporary inertia and embrace our connection to the past.
At the beginning of the novel we meet Patrick; an aging professor, distant father, and divorcee, who has just awakened from complicated surgery in which he receives a heart transplant. During the recovery process Patrick beings to find himself altered, experiencing a different, displaced sense of self, which he believes stems from the adopted heart beating in his chest.
Andrew Beamish, the late donor of said heart, was a emotional troubled high school student and native of the Fens, passionately in love with a woman he could not be with, who felt a deep and essential connection to his past and his ancestors.
These characters reach out and tug on your heartstrings – they aren’t perfect, nor do they profess to be. This is the story of a group of people, seeming to drift in isolation through their lives, but inevitably being connected in ways they do not initially understand. The heart behaves as a powerful metaphor, arching over the text, intertwining the lives of Patrick and Drew in unexpected ways, with Patrick’s second chance at life stemming from the one Drew Beamish lost – Patrick comes to discover the heart he has received weighs more than just a pound of flesh, but carries the weight of generations of Fen-folk, leading him towards a path of rediscovery and absolution.
Dawson’s language is at times quite spellbinding, often providing snatches of elegant, gentle and softly moving prose, such as when William Beamiss describes life in the Fens during the nineteenth century: ‘I see it clear: the morning sun making finger shadows across the marshy spot; we’ve all seen that round here. How the reeds look, spiked with the blood red of the summer’s last poppies’, or even wonderfully enticing fragments, such as the ‘bittern booming’ of geese or the ‘hoarse rattle’ of wings. Dawson’s words transport the reader to a time that, whilst filled with hardship and toil, was simple and in touch with the beauty that nature has to offer.
Time is layered and manipulated wonderfully in this novel, drifting between the present day, both before and after Drew’s death, and back to the nineteenth century with Drew’s ancestors and their daily fight for a full belly and a fair wage. Dawson reminds us that the one thing that inextricably links us to one another, our past and the world is that we are struggling through it together, that we won’t always make the best or right decisions, but despite these changes nature has consistently been the source to which we can turn to, that can heal and comfort the heart.
Partly about humanity and the need to reach out to the people around us, and partly about the importance of tradition and history, this novel perhaps seeks to encourage us to take a momentary step out of our contemporary world, and a brief step outside of ourselves, and consider the beauty and brilliance that life can afford us. Read in a field, on a park bench, or in your own back garden, and let this novel make you stop and consider all that surrounds you.