Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Review: The Tell-tale Heart by Jill Dawson

When my daughter got her license a few months ago, they asked her if she wanted to be an organ donor. She didn't know how to answer the question but when she turned to me to ask what I thought, I told her that yes, she should register as one. As much as I hope there's never any need for that information to be on record, it is important stuff. In fact, a friend of mine had to make the heart-wrenching and unimaginable decision to donate her teenaged son's organs not too long before I stood in the DMV with my daughter. That we all have the chance to give a stranger a life saving gift is amazing, especially in the midst of terrible tragedy. And I have to imagine that the hope that some spark of your loved one lives on in the actual flesh, blood, and muscle of their donation gives families some shred of peace in their loss. There are countless stories out there about people who are organ recipients who feel a connection with their donor, some who go on to have relationships with their donor's family, and some who say that their tastes, interests, and temperament changed after the transplant. I imagine that no matter what, the recipient must always feel curiousity about the donor whose gift allowed them life. Certainly this is the case in Jill Dawson's newest novel, The Tell-Tale Heart.

Patrick is a university professor, fifty years old, a philandering womanizer, whose heart failure was so advanced he was given an outside chance of making it another 6 months. But a sixteen year old boy on a motorcycle had an accident and because of the donor card in his wallet, Patrick has a much longer future ahead of him. The question is what his future looks like. When Patrick wakes up in hospital after the transplant, his ex-wife is at his bedside and he has no grasp of the enormity of what has just occurred. He certainly knows it intellectually but he doesn't know it deep in his newly transplanted heart.

Drew Beamish is a troubled and rebellious teenager. His family is poor but proud and he's got great potential even if he'll have to overcome a lack of advantages in order to use it.  But like his ancestor before him, he is close to beaten before he ever even gets started and in many ways, he lives down to that expectation. He is fairly aggressively pursuing a relationship with his teacher at school and after his father's early and unexpected death from a heart attack after a farm accident, he pushes at the boundaries pre-drawn for him all the harder. And it is this raging against his fate that lands him squarely on the motorcycle that speeds his death.

The novel's first person narration alternates mainly between Patrick, post-operation, and Drew, pre-accident, with a short chapter focused on Drew's ancestor, his role in the uprisings in the Fens, and his own enduring love two hundred years prior. For Drew, there is a real hopelessness about the future; ironically his death gives Patrick the opportunity to even have a future, filled with hope or no. And with this second chance, Patrick experiences subtle personality changes, reevaluating his past relationships and family ties, and must face head on the question of what obligation he has to Drew and Drew's memory simply because he was the recipient of Drew's heart. The landscape of the novel is bleak and blighted, the flat, former swampland filled in as agricultural land. The tone of the novel is atmospheric, spare, and oddly unemotional. The strength of the story lies in the writing. It's a very literary novel that examines what part of us resides in our heart, what spark of our person remains there as long as it beats, even in the chest of another human being. As Patrick feels the constant beating of Drew's heart in his chest, he must take stock of a life squandered and a life cut short and decide where the steady beats of the future will take him. Dawson has raised some intriguing questions and laid them inside the lives of two rather unexceptional characters, who become exceptional over the course of the narrative, connected by the most basic, physical sign of life, a fully functioning heart.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of this book for review.


  1. I like the premise of this novel, and this is a lovely review. I appreciated the personal angle, too -- I am so sorry for your friend's loss. I'm sure losing one of our children -- for all of us -- is our worst fear. :-(

  2. I look forward to this one. Almost this exact scenario played out in our family when my brother-in-law had only a few weeks to live, and received the heart of an 18 year old accident victim. He has lived for over 20 years now with his new heart.

  3. Great review, really. I think I like your description stating that it's oddly unemotional. That's a unique way to describe a novel for sure. It's always nice being able to pick up and read a book that you can relate to your life. Shows that books can make us feel so much less alone.


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