THE COURSE OF THE HEART
This book comes after years of hoping for something like it, though I did not expect M. John Harrison to be its author, thinking how much of his output from the last fifteen years has been the high fantasy Viriconium series. The Course Of The Heart is written much more in the realist style of his early Committed_Men (1971), though if you wanted something to compare it to, there are Christopher Evans' In_Limbo (1985) and Christopher Priest's The_Glamour (1984).
The plot revolves around a mystery - four students together at Cambridge performed an occult rite, invoking the other world of the "pleroma". The invocation worked in a way they did not expect, and two of them, who went onto marry, were both haunted - literally and figuratively - ever afterwards. After the event none of them remember what it was that happened or why.
Of the other two characters, one is Yaxley, who would always have been a nasty piece of work anyway, and the other is the nameless narrator and part of the mystery is what he inherited from the disaster. (I won't tell).
Most of the story is set in the present day (or perhaps a little later) and describes the everday life of the characters. Lucase Medlar becomes an English teacher in the north, while Pam his wife stays at home affected the epilepsy she has had from childhood. Though they try to make a go of it, they cannot be happy. Yaxley tries to involve more people in his circle, and pulls the narrator into a plot involving a kidnapped child which ends in deaths, but the narrator overwise has a successful life in publishing.
However, there is another world if not two intervening in this one: Lucas Medlar has the manuscript autobiography of a traveller from the 1930's with its view of the past, and he has an account from alchemical texts of a city which disappeared - this city is the Coeur, the heart from which Richard the Lion Heart took his name, possibly the heart of a heartless world.
So the ordinary world of working and doing the washing up is being invaded or penetrated - by the course of the Coeur, by the traveller Michael Ashman, by the hauntings from the Pleroma, by the machinations of Yaxley. The narrator has to make sense of it all and try to make it all work out. Only by two of the four dying can this happen, but the reasons for the deaths and whether they are happy or sad, satisfied or unsatisfied, are very different. The narrator finally sees everything in a different way, even Medlar's familiar changes, and the world becomes a world of possibilities in which that morning in Cambridge did not condemn them forever. There may not be one Coeur but many, so that the title becomes a pun. Or he may have gone mad.
This novel seems to escape genre - it is essentially realist, but it revolves around aspects of the fantastic, Yaxley and his efforts make it a detective story or thriller but they are only a small part of the book. Then there are the then and now stories of the pre-war traveller, and the ancient stories of the Coeur, in which fourteenth century battles are described, and of course the whole alchemical theory in which the characters explain what has happened.
In addition to all these fictions within the book it has a sub-text (if I have not imagined this as I read) - in different parts there are echoes of other texts. For instance, on the third page there is a half-page description of a railway halt, it is described as "the branch-line halt of middle-class children's fiction forty years ago", but it also recalls Edward Thomas' poem 'Adlestrop', about Thomas' own experience of a railway halt before the Great War. All through the book I found this sort of echo and wondered why they, like the pleroma, were penetrating the novel. The biggest of these is also at a moment of major revelation - when the narrator finally sees Medlar's familiar, the thing that has haunted and wrecked the man's life. It comes from Sheridan Le Fanu's classic short story, 'Green Tea'. At the end of The Glamour Christopher Priest explained his fantasy away as a literary theory, something that Christopher Evans explicity avoided. Harrison has taken neither of those approaches, although I do not claim my reading here is the right one. I would be interested to know the history of the construction of this book - it is very elaborately constructed.
I leave this book with just one fear - that if it has its justified success it will be bought and not read, to lie on coffee tables as a sign of its owner's literacy. Anyone who did that would be doing themselves an injustice.
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© L J Hurst 2009