Fatal love and the ambiguous bond of brotherhood are central to Helen Dunmore's With Your Crooked Heart
. Siblings Paul and Johnnie are born more than a decade apart in an East London tenement. Sworn to protect and nurture his brother, Paul elevates them both to a life of wealth and status through a string of dubious land-development deals. As a result, Johnnie has "what Paul never had: he'd had father and brother, all rolled into one, and a future that someone else had already paid for." But with his life mortgaged to his ever-loving brother, the impossibly beautiful Johnnie becomes as compelled by the possibilities of failure as his sibling is by success.
Paul, meanwhile, weds Louise, and his "passion of protectiveness" immediately draws Johnnie into the heart of their marriage. Needless to say, the bride may well wish for less of a ménage à trois:
He sat across the kitchen table from me, smiling, and told me there'd been a complete fuck-up over manufacturing acid in a farmhouse in Herefordshire. He would have made a million. It was always a million with Johnnie: some glittering amount of money that you couldn't really pin down.... We let ourselves think he was like a child. It was the angle we looked at him. When you see a cat play, if you can call it play, you thank God it's the size it is.
But after giving birth to a daughter, Louise attempts to drown her own secrets with drink, beginning a slow progression of loss that will drag down her family in its wake. "I could look back and show you each step of the way that's got us here," she recalls, mapping her melancholy journey. Yet when Louise is presented with one last chance to save Johnnie from himself, some sort of redemption seems in the offing.
Dunmore's success here, as in such earlier novels as Talking to the Dead and Your Blue-Eyed Boy, is her ability to combine sublime prose with a swift and sure-footed narrative. Yet With Your Crooked Heart also goes beyond this alchemy of poetry and plot: it delivers an understated, emphatic study of alcoholism, adult self-delusion, and the emotional relativity of all relationships in a world where "not being able to trust yourself is the biggest thrill of all." --Rachel Holmes
From Publishers Weekly
In sharp, elegant prose, Dunmore's latest novel explores "the roots that the past puts down in the present," and finds that it is impossible to escape the consequences of reckless actions. Real estate mogul Paul turns dilapidated buildings into luxury apartments, shedding the squalor of his childhood for the trappings of privileged London life, but he cannot save his brother, ne'er-do-well Johnnie, from the younger man's self-destructive tendencies. British writer Dunmore (Talking to the Dead; Your Blue-Eyed Boy) here plumbs familiar depths, exploring the anxieties of threatened children, the twisted family ties and the adulterous secrets that give her plots an almost gothic richness. Despite the weight of her material, Dunmore's eye for contemporary detail and her light, sensuous prose save her work from melodrama. Paul's wife, Louise, conceives Anna after a fleeting encounter with Johnnie. Ten years later, the secret infidelity continues to weigh on her; she grows fat and alcoholic, and Paul abandons her for icy Sonia. When he marries Sonia and moves with Anna to their new house in Yorkshire, Louise slips more deeply into drink and confides in Johnnie, himself mixed up in drugs and crime. Johnnie goes on the lam to flee vicious creditors, and Louise follows. Dunmore documents their ill-fated journey while tracking, in parallel, pensive Anna's coming-of-age. Adding authenticity, she supplies convincing details about the petty criminals who operate on the fringes of London's underworld, but the final focus is on Anna and the possibility of redemption that she represents. Dunmore's dreamy, lucid language makes this haunting novel as lovely as it is wrenching. (Feb.) the first 1996 Orange Prize, for A Spell of Winter.
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