The Heron is a Lonely Hunter – 13 May 2023

I have been re-reading Carson McCullers’ The Heart is a Lonely Hunter in preparation for this month’s fiction book group. The bereaved, the poor, the alcoholic and the oppressed come to John Singer to tell him their problems. This is 1930s smalltown Georgia. The characters are prejudiced, solitary and unable to change their lives. So instead they share them with John and they question their hopelessness. And because John is deaf, they imagine that he offers understanding. His expression – wise, inscrutable – offers a safety they cannot find elsewhere; it allows them to experience a few moments where they are not alone. With little thought for his loneliness.

It is a joy every time I pick up the book. Each paragraph is rich with detail and insight. The dialogue is raw and often shocking. Carson McCullers was 23 when this, her debut, was published in 1940 and I have been thinking about how much that matters. Is it an incredible feat to have that grasp of what is going on and to translate it into a great novel at that young age? Or is it because of, rather than in spite of, her age that she writes such a compelling story about all that she sees is wrong in society? Is there something important about the debut novel that explores such things? I’m thinking about books like Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson, An Olive Grove in Ends by Moses McKenzie, The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison. Something to puzzle over for the next twenty years or so, I reckon.

Meanwhile, there are books by writers of all ages to celebrate.

Fiction

August Blue by Deborah Levy – we meet Elsa, a celebrated concert pianist, after she has walked off stage mid-Rachmaninov-performance. She is in a Greek market jealously watching a woman who looks just like her buy two horses. She steals the woman’s hat and wears it for the rest of the novel, while the doppelganger, thoughts of composing her own music and an exploration of her origins plague her. 

Forbidden Notebook by Alba de Céspedes – originally serialised in an Italian magazine in 1950 and now translated into English: a woman running an errand buys a shiny black notebook and begins to keep a diary. Valeria Cossati hides her writing from her husband, as she records her concerns about domestic life and her ordinary job. Yet in this quiet, interior novel, really she explores issues of class, gender and war.

Poetry

The Big Calls by Glyn Maxwell – Maxwell’s poems are responses to classics – to Kipling’s If, to Rossetti’s Goblin Market – and responses to that embarrassing lie: we got the big calls right. They are raging, highly intelligent and absolutely the poetry we need.  

Non-fiction

Among Others by Michael Frayn – as he turns 90, Michael Frayn offers a look at that question: other people. He looks back at the friends, the lovers, the acquaintances and the others who have shaped his world and puzzles about their oddities and his own.

Messalina by Honor Cargill-Martin – ancient historians, classicists, fans of Robert Graves and Derek Jacobi: it’s Messalina’s turn and I am absolutely here for it. In this brilliantly researched new history of the Emperor Claudius’ third wife, Honor Cargill-Martin digs beneath the scandal and the slander to find a woman trying to assert herself.

I Thought I Heard You Speak by Audrey Golden – from the untold story of a woman in first century Rome to the untold story of women in the golden age of Madchester; hear from the women who shaped Factory Records. Their interviews tell the story of a cultural phenomenon, of their role in it and of its reach today.

For children and everyone else who loves children’s books

Food Fight by Alex Latimer – if you loved Colin and Lee, Carrot and Pea (that’s all of you, I’m sure) Food Fight is for you. Addressing that eternal debate – which is better: fruit or vegetable? – grape and mushroom decide it’s finally time to settle the argument.

Budgie by Joseph Coelho – Miles thinks that his neighbour is old and grumpy and is tired of being told off by him for climbing trees. But when he and Mr Buxton find a young lost budgerigar, they learn that they have more in common. This is a lovely story from the wonderful Barrington Stoke who specialise in accessible children’s books.

Global by Eoin Colfer and Andrew Donkin – a powerful graphic novel about two young people living on different continents whose lives are dramatically impacted by climate change. Yuki in Nova Scotia and Sami in the Bay of Bengal both struggle to survive in this moving call-to-action.

Phew! So many wondrous books.

Hope to see you all at poetry this evening in the shop. Mab Jones and Deborah Harvey will be reading at 5pm today. There will be bubbles. There will be word play. There will be trauma. There will be healing. Someone may lose a finger… (not really).

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