The Immaculate Heart by Andrew Raymond Drennan
There is an inuring line of melancholic humour that runs through The Immaculate Heart, a compelling new novel about the nature of love. Starting and concluding with a funeral – one a depressingly done-on-the- cheap affair that nearly crashes into a late-running wedding; the other a somewhat larger affair that somehow manages to keep a curious media at bay – it’s the book’s smile-inducing weariness that bizarrely powers the reader onwards.
Central character Maggie is 14 years old – nearly 15, as she keeps reminding anyone who will listen. She is literate and thoughtful, and so disliked by her peers, or at most rated as a ‘second-best’ shag. She is obsessed with love; about what it is, and whether she will ever experience it, given that the local boys always fail to live up to her expectations when it comes to romance, or even their ability to make her pregnant (so she can experience the true love she believes can exist between a mother and her child). “Maggie’s romanticism was never outdone by her optimism,” we’re told at one point. Just as well, as there’s little of what anyone would call love at home.
Maggie’s the younger – adopted – daughter of Bill and Jean Burns, a couple long ago separated emotionally by alcohol, depression, concepts of manhood and (at least for Jean) fantasies of being rescued by Humphrey Bogart. The novel starts soon after the death of Maggie’s older sister, Trish, in a road accident for which Maggie partly feels responsible. With Jean taking up a guilt-fuelled vigil on the roadside where Trish was killed, and Bill losing himself in drink and long sex sessions with a well-to-do housewife,
Maggie turns to her only friend, 80 year old Bertrand Mantis. Now living alone in a soonto- be-demolished part of the same estate, a youthful Bertrand had experienced the purest love imaginable with a young woman called Rose, but when separated from her by his soldier stepfather, he was forced to spend many years in a host of mental institutions undergoing ect and other ‘treatments’ to cure his supposed ‘melancholy’. It’s through Rose’s numerous letters to Bertrand (sent from a remote Scottish island where Rose had planned to escape the Second World War), that Maggie senses the kind of true love that she herself dreams about. Coming to the letters afresh, she decides to track Rose down, to not only prove that Rose survived but also convince herself that such a kind of pure love is possible.
There is a lot to like about this novel; both the modern-day teenage world Maggie inhabits and Bertrand’s oh-so-distant childhood on a small Scottish island are grounded in a sense of truth, while the portrayal of a mental health institution is chilling thanks to its vigorous bludgeoning of the imagination. “With a little help from Mr Benjamin Franklin here,” says one of the staff, applying the ect, “we’ll get you back to normal. Seeing normal things. Get you better.”
Drennan’s expert turn of phrase is lean and nuanced, telling much with few words, and doing so in a way that’s memorable but not false: such as his early description of Billy with “a cigarette stuck to his bottom lip, as limp as his penis would be when he tried to corral Jean into having sex later.” Yet, despite being an accessible read, The Immaculate Heart is a book that takes its reader into some pretty dark and frightening areas; this is especially the case with Maggie’s cousin Dee-dee, whose own search for love and meaning has – combined with excessive drug taking – left her in the same hospital in which Bertrand was once incarcerated, constantly flicking through an old newspaper in search of some message from the man of her dreams. In the end, this is a mature and accomplished study of heartbreak, loss and the drive we have to survive them.
The Immaculate Heart
Andrew Raymond Drennan
Cargo Publishing, rrp £11•99, 232pp