The Tell-Tale Heart by Jill Dawson

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Reviewed by Annabel Gaskell

Jill Dawson’s eighth novel is certainly a tale with heart. At the centre of it is Professor and professional reprobate Patrick who, at fifty, is diagnosed with a dicky ticker and given just a few months to live unless he gets a heart transplant. It’s a shock for Patrick; drinker, father of two children by different mothers, one ex-wife, one ex-mistress and currently under a bit of a cloud due to a complaint of harassment at his university.

He’s in luck, for a heart becomes available. Deep in Cambridgeshire’s Fens, a teenager dies in a motorcycle accident.  Patrick becomes the third person to have pioneering ‘beating heart’ transplant surgery at the world-renowned Papworth Hospital near Cambridge. After surgery he comes to, to find his ex-wife Helen at his bedside…

Between her pauses the room is deathly quiet. Soundproofed perhaps. Muffled. I could indeed be in my coffin, lying in padded grey silk. Perhaps I hear a TV murmuring somewhere. Hushed voices. Trolley wheels, the soft hum of machinery. I have a sudden tiny image of myself, lying in the operating theatre, my chest sprung open like a birdcage, with the door wide and the bird flown. Robbed. Like Thomas Hardy; wasn’t he, horribly, buried without his heart? Some dim memory of a story about a biscuit tin. The dog eating the heart, which had been kept in a biscuit tin, and Hardy’s friends having to bury someone else’s heart. Body and soul separated.

Patrick recovers well, although he has a strange feeling that he’s now a different man. Is there any truth in the tales that transplant recipients can take on characteristics of their donors? Patrick doesn’t believe so, but nor is he his old self; he soon recognises that he can never go back to his old persona, it doesn’t go with his new heart.

The transplant liaison, Maureen, suggests he writes to thank the family – she means well, but Patrick can’t produce the clichéd letter she suggests. When the name of the young lad is published in the local press however, his curiosity is piqued, and he begins to find out about the Beamish family, whose ancestors were part of the Littleport riots back in 1816. The riots were a true event sparked by unemployment – a subject that still resonates within the tough economics of Fenland farming. The family’s history, both ancient and modern, is interspersed with Patrick’s.

He is drawn to find out more about Drew Beamish and makes contact with the boy’s grieving mother.  At the same time, he begins to rebuild his relationship with his son, whom he’d more or less abandoned years ago in London with his ex-mistress. His son is now seventeen, a year older than his new heart.

Although I mourned the waste of Drew’s young life, I did grow to quite like Patrick – especially Patrick mark II.  The old version may have been God’s gift to women physically, but never sought to understand them; his brain was mostly in his trousers or in the bottom of his glass.  The new one realises now that this is not how to form meaningful relationships, be they with partners, family or colleagues; he even learns how to say sorry. Patrick’s humour and wit come through the operation unscathed though so thankfully he doesn’t become a bore.

Dawson skilfully weaves these parts together into a narrative liberally threaded through with, dare I say it, hearty quips and phrases, although hers fit seamlessly into the text, unlike mine which was shoe-horned in!  This novel is rather obsessed with the place that hearts have in our make-up. Hearts are more than a mere blood-pump, they are the partners to our souls, and quotations and anecdotes from literature illustrate that ‘twas ever thus. The book borrows its title from Edgar Allan Poe’s short story too, but there’s no sign of a buried heart beating madly under the floorboards in this novel. Thanks to the donor card that young Drew carried, his heart lives on.

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Read Victoria’s interview with Jill Dawson here.

Jill Dawson, The Tell-Tale Heart (Sceptre, Feb 2014), 256 pages.

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