Patrick, 50, Professor of American Studies, womaniser – he has an ex-wife and two children, an ex-mistress and a third child almost the same age as his second, and a mature student ex-lover who’s filed a complaint of sexual harassment against him – is only the third person to have a beating-heart transplant. As the novel begins, Patrick is in recovery in a hospital in Cambridgeshire:
‘I have a sudden tiny image of myself, lying in the operating theatre, my chest sprung open like a birdcage, with the door wide and the bird flown. Robbed. Like Thomas Hardy; wasn’t he, horribly, buried without his heart? Some dim memory of a story about a biscuit tin. The dog eating the heart, which had been kept in a biscuit tin, and Hardy’s friends having to bury someone else’s heart. Body and soul separated.’
The irony of this, of course, is that Patrick’s donor will be buried without his heart but Patrick, in his selfishness, hasn’t considered this yet. He’s too busy berating and patronising his surgeon, his nurse and the transplant co-ordinator.
What has made him curious, however, is the hallucination – or is it a memory? – he had in the theatre of a kestrel flying above him while he stood upon a long, flat grey road.
The only thing he knows about his new heart was that it came from Littleport, the largest village in East Cambridgeshire. Surrounded by the fens, it was an island before they were drained.
‘No man is an island. Littleport was. I am now. A strange man, unlike any other. I’m a burglar, carrying off the heart of someone else, one that doesn’t belong to me. I’d like to go back to my old self, to my old life, but I have a curious, powerful certainty: my old self won’t have me.’
Three weeks after the transplant takes place, the local paper runs a story on it and includes details of the donor – ‘a sixteen-year-old youth, Andrew Beamish of Littleport. He died in a motorcycle accident, in a remote and rural part of the Fens’. Now Patrick’s curiousity about Drew Beamish and his family is ‘intense’.
Dawson weaves the story of the Beamish family between that of Patrick’s, beginning with an ancestor of his, Willie Beamiss, who – along with his father – was involved in the Ely and Littleport Riots of 1816. The Beamiss’ were poor farm labourers at a time when the disparity between their employers and themselves was significant and when a meeting to determine who would benefit from that year’s poor relief became a mob rioting over their discontent, Willie Beamiss senior was at the front, inciting the crowd. When the rioters came to trial, the intention of the judge was to set an example:
‘To crush ‘those very daring acts of outrage’ – to show that none of us who rioted would be spared. To show it had nothing to do with poverty or need and to point out that the inhabitants of Ely is more ‘rude and uncivilised’ than anywhere else. The conduct of the rioters was not due to poverty, or bad crops, the court was told, because all the prisoners was robust men receiving great wages, too frequently wasted in drunkenness.’
Willie Beamiss senior was hanged alongside four other men.
It’s not difficult to draw a parallel with the riots that took place across England in 2011 and perhaps the transplant of Drew Beamish’s heart into his body will help Patrick understand those who live a very different lifestyle to his own.
The dual narrative is skillfully done; rather than having Patrick tell us what he discovers, Dawson writes Willie Beamiss’ story, and then Drew’s, in their own words. It means they’re allowed to own their own tale – their own identities – rather than have it reclaimed by those who’ve taken so much from them over the centuries. It also means that as a reader, we invest in the Beamiss’ story and empathise with them.
The Tell-Tale Heart is an examination of class, of what it’s like to be middle-aged middle class man and also what it feels like to be a working class teenage boy. It’s about what makes us who we are. At several points in the novel, someone mentions to Patrick a theory about those who have transplants:
‘That patients who having heart surgery change, take on the personality of their donor in some way, and maybe their dreams, their memories too. There’s quite a well-known study and a book by this woman who started craving chicken nuggets and green peppers and what do you know – turns out her heart donor was a young lad who loves those foods.’
Dawson plays on this idea throughout the novel – has Patrick taken on some of Drew Beamish’s personality or are the changes he makes caused by coming so close to death? She prevents this thread from becoming sentimental by Patrick’s relentless skepticism – ‘Is he expecting me to take this seriously?’ – as we are left to wonder how serious it is ourselves.
Any Cop?: The Tell-Tale Heart is an accomplished novel by a great writer. The prose sings and I wanted to savour it but the plot’s so interesting, I found myself racing through it instead. Highly recommended.