Review: My Former Heart by Cressida Connolly
Fourth Estate, €16.99
Cressida Connolly, writer and daughter of the enfant terrible of Fifties literary London, Cyril Connolly, has been quite a late starter.
A wonderfully incisive and crisp reviewer for The Spectator, Vogue, The Daily Telegraph and The Observer, now in her early 50s, her first book, The Happiest Days is a surgically insightful collection of short stories, with childhood at their core, published just a decade ago (it instantly won the Pan/Macmillan prize); it was followed in 2004 by The Rare and the Beautiful a biography of the racy and beautiful Garman sisters, muses and mistresses to some of the 20th Century's greatest artists (Jacob Epstein, Laurie Lee, Lucien Freud among their conquests).
My Former Heart is her first novel, and her third book, and begins in similar terrain as The Happiest Days -- big old, cold houses -- or 'the cold -- so cold as to be indistinguishable from misery', Brown Windsor sauce, unpredictable 'grown ups' and war time austerity.
The novel begins with Ruth, then eight, and her beautiful, and seriously unpredictable mother, Iris. Sighting what she (Iris) thinks is a former lover on a black and white newsreel in the cinema, within days she has sent her daughter off by train to her husband's grandparents in the country (he's away at war, too), and heads for the Middle East to another man, and adventure.
It's a testament to Cressida Connolly's storytelling skills that she doesn't proceed from this catastrophe (for only child Ruth) to construct a misery memoir, but rather a three generational tale, spanning the lives, and loves, of Iris (who comes back with yet another man), a grown up Ruth, and finally Ruth's children, Isobel and Emily.
As a perceptive reviewer in Vogue put it about an earlier work of Connolly's: 'While so many contemporary writers tend to slap you in the face with their discoveries, she (Cressida Connolly) would rather take you with her on her journey.'
The journeys undertaken by the heroines of My Former Heart -- daughter, mother, lover, divorcee, wife, grandmother, teenager, twenty something heroines -- are by definition female.
Journeys to and from love -- mother love, daughter love, gay love, parrot love, lover love -- all feature.
But it's as if the special effects guys have been told to go on holiday, and in the quiet space created by ditching the whizz bang pyrotechnics, Connolly can get down to her favourite occupation: quietly and systematically looking at all the little things that shape our lives.
The writing is pretty good too.
You could say My Former Heart is a quiet hymn to what could be, often is, slickly dismissed as 'women's stuff'.
The 'domestics'; the confusions, the boredoms, the abortions, the babies, the sex, the appalling and 'absolute terror of loving and not being loved in return'.
Stuff, in other words, that makes the world go round.
It does take a changing of pace to get into this slow careful prose, but once you do, the rewards will be worth it.
For the daughter of one of the cleverest critics and writers of his day, who famously said 'there is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall', it's rather wonderful to note that his daughter -- whom he clearly adored, and she him -- is the (good) mother of three, young adult children, and writing assiduously.
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