Blog Post: Heidi James Month

Among one of the first books I was sent to review on this blog when I ‘went public’ with it last year was The Sound Mirror by Heidi James. I was only just getting my head around the idea that publishers and authors were starting to send me copies of books that WEREN’T EVEN OUT YET, when this beautiful package arrived on my doorstep:

Not only did I love the book (one of my Top Reads of last year), I knew it was one that I wanted to read again, and that Heidi James was an author I wanted to read more of. So, since I first read her work in June last year, I decided that June 2021 would be the perfect time for Heidi James Month, in which I would read/reread the four works I own by Heidi. What struck me most, apart from the beautiful writing, was the incredible range these books show. I honestly think EVERYONE will find a book they’d love among these treasures.

The Mesmerist’s Daughter

This novella won the Saboteur Award in 2015, and it is easy to see why. Here is the blurb:

“Heidi James’s novella The Mesmerist’s Daughter is the hypnotic tale of a child with a wolf for a mother. The narrative of this haunting story hovers somewhere between memory and delusion, as a woman closeted in a psychiatric facility recounts the tale of a particularly difficult time in her childhood. James’s writing is highly-detailed and immediate, each page bursting with details so fresh that they’re almost tangible. From the opening sentence The Mesmerist’s Daughter is as unsettling as it is magical, as arresting as it is darkly evocative.”

This short work, which comes as a lovely chapbook from Neon Books, is, I think, a great introduction to Heidi James’ writing. Her crisp, taut descriptions crackle with energy, the sacred and the profane nuzzle up against each other – it is a grim fairy tale, a horror story, but also a deeply moving portrait of a traumatic childhood.

It reminded me a little of Absorbed by Kylie Whitehead, in the way that the horror is subsumed by the everyday – the acceptance of the very real (to her) fact that the narrator’s mother is a wolf adds a deeply unsettling resonance to even the most mundane exchanges. There is an eerie sense of the boundaries between reality and nightmare dissolving, of a mind unravelling and letting the subconscious find its own truth. Visceral, intense, sharp as a knife-edge, this novella is well worth reading if you like to wander into the dark.

The Mesmerist’s Daughter is available to purchase here.

Wounding

“Cora has everything a woman is supposed to want – a career, a caring husband, children, and a stylish home. Desperate for release and burdened with guilt she falls into a pattern of ever increasing violence and sexual degradation till a one night stand tips her over the edge and she finds herself in a Dominatrix’s dungeon. Wounding explores a woman’s search for redemption, identity and truth.”

I’m probably starting to be a bore about the beauty of James’ prose, but I am not going to apologise! Wounding is such a complex, detailed, finely-drawn depiction of what it means to fall into society’s expectations, to find yourself living a life that bears no relation to your inner truth. The structure, alternating between Cora’s third person point of view and the increasingly frustrated and desperate first person addresses of her husband, shows the widening gap between them and emphasises just how alone Cora is in her feelings.

I found Cora’s journey subtler than the blurb suggests – rather than a dramatic fall into a life of degradation, what Wounding represented to me was a bold exploration of a woman trying to find the core (oh, is there a pun there?! Sorry!) of herself in a world which probably doesn’t want her find it. It is thought-provoking and occasionally piercingly close to the bone (I have to state for the record that I love being a mother, but when I read works like this, or Sheila Heti’s Motherhood, for example, I feel a drop in my stomach at how unexamined my decision to have children was, how the assumption of it took precedence over any real soul-searching about whether it was right for me. It is, by the way, but that shouldn’t be a given). This topic is so important, and I think Wounding adds a really brave voice to the conversation.

Wounding is available to purchase here.

So The Doves

“When award-winning journalist Marcus Murray’s latest story involves a corrupt alliance between a UK bank, the arms trade and the government, it seems he has triumphed again in his quest for the truth. But he is accused of fabrication and nothing in his life makes sense any more, including the disappearance twenty years ago of his best friend, Melanie. Why did she vanish, and who is the body recently discovered in a Kent orchard? A timeless story of how love and enduring friendship shape who we are, the novel exposes the fault lines in our own reality and who and what we believe to be true, including ourselves.”

There is a shift in tone here from Wounding, a move towards a more plot-driven story, with a mysterious disappearance at its centre. Fans of cold case thrillers will find much to enjoy in this book. For me, once more, it was the beauty of the prose that had me hooked, and the brilliant way that James shows the divide between Marcus as he is now and Marcus as a teen. Shifting between the first and third person for the same character is not as easy as it sounds, and I was in awe of how effectively James uses the technique here. As someone who has a terrible long-term memory, my past often feels like someone else’s story, and I guess for this reason, it resonated extra strongly with me!

Melanie is a fascinating character, not someone I can compare to other characters off the top of my head – she is resolutely her own person, and her friendship with Marcus is so carefully and beautifully explored. As the pieces of the puzzle start to fall into place, and the drama ramps up, it becomes harder and harder to tear yourself away from the page. The ending feels exactly right, extremely satisfying but with enough of an ‘opening out’ to move the story beyond these characters.

So The Doves is available to purchase here.

The Sound Mirror

I’ve been wanting to do more rereading this year, but it hasn’t really happened, mostly because there are TOO MANY BOOKS! I’m really pleased that I managed to reread The Sound Mirror, confirming my suspicions that this marvel of a book would only improve on repeated readings, yielding up more of its secrets each time. My original review, written last year, is here. If you want to stay firmly in the present, here’s the blurb:

“Tamara is going to kill her mother, but she isn’t the villain. Tamara just has to finish what began at her birth and put an end to the damage encoded in her blood. Leaving her job in Communications, Tamara dresses carefully and hires a car, making the trip from London to her hometown in Kent, to visit her mother for the last time. Accompanied by a chorus of ancestors, Tamara is harried by voices from the past and the future that reveal the struggles, joys and secrets of these women’s lives that continue to echo through and impact her own.

The Sound Mirror spans three familial generations from British Occupied India to Southern England, through intimately rendered characters, Heidi James has crafted a haunting and moving examination of class, war, violence, family and shame from the rich details of ordinary lives.”

I loved rereading this book – cracking open the first pages, I was reminded of how beautiful and gripping it is, right from the very start. This time around, what struck me was the almost dizzying sense of time looping, of history repeating itself, of the echoes of trauma moving forwards and backwards and reverberating through these women’s lives like a hum of tinnitus, constantly there.

Some traumas are explored in more detail, some are mentioned almost in passing, a shocking blow struck, in a couple of cases, very near then end of the book. This creates such a powerful sense of the cyclical nature of trauma, and, reading The Sound Mirror straight after her other works, I could feel characters and themes rising up again from her previous books – Cora finds her echo in Ada, for example – and this strengthens the vertiginous feeling of everything being connected, of the collective ‘we’ voice that is found in Tamara’s sections opening out beyond the novel, spilling into other works and into real life in a way that I found intensely emotional.

Reading The Sound Mirror again has confirmed my opinion that this book is something very special indeed, and I would urge you to check it out for yourselves if you haven’t already.

The Sound Mirror is available to purchase here.

It was such a good decision to read all of these works close together (if I do say so myself!) – I’ve enjoyed it so much, and it’s been really interesting to note both the variety and the common threads that run through James’ work.

If this post has whetted your appetite and you want to read a far more eloquent and detailed examination of Heidi James’ work, check out this brilliant lithub article by Dr Heather Martin, in which she compares James to Lee Child. It is a fascinating read, and gives a wonderful insight into this exceptional writer. I think the fact that Heidi James evokes such powerful responses to her work from her readers speaks volumes.

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