Review – The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers

I had been looking forward to reading this ever since 2014, when some friends and I went on a girly road trip through the Deep South and I fell in love with Dixieland.

Well. Carson McCullers’ novel, written when she was 23 (23! I find that irritating, to say the least) wasn’t quite what I was expecting. But let’s start at the beginning. This is the story of the misfit inhabitants of a town ‘in the middle of the deep South. The summers were long and the months of winter cold were very few. Nearly always the sky was a glassy, brilliant azure and the sun burned down riotously bright. Then the light, chill rains of November would come, and perhaps later there would be frost and some short months of cold. The winters were changeable, but the summers always were burning hot.’

I say ‘the story of’, but actually, if anything this felt more like a collection of short stories than a novel. I think a lot of that is down to how disconnected the characters are with each other (and themselves). The main character, although it feels odd to describe him that way, is Singer, a deaf mute towards whom a number of the other characters gravitate. His inability to speak inevitably draws other people out of themselves; he communicates little, allowing each of them to fill in the blanks and project a little of themselves onto him. They are not alone in this; the Turks in town are convinced that he’s Turkish, the Jews think he’s Jewish, and so on and so forth. ‘His eyes,’ McCullers tells us, ‘made a person think that he heard things nobody else had ever heard, that he knew things no one had ever guessed before. He did not seem quite human.’

Nobody else in the novel, though, seems to be able to connect with each other. There is one scene in particular where Singer, the deaf mute on whom the story hangs together, is visited by all four of his regular visitors at once; used to speaking only to him, they ignore each other awkwardly, until it’s time to leave again. This never improves; if anything, the sense of alienation gets worse, not better, and characters are driven through the book by their desires, rather than their relationships.

The writing is spare and precise and in places simply stunning – like the quote in the second paragraph above, which was one of my favourites. The sense of geography in particular, both in time and space and also in terms of the characters’ place in the natural world, is strong. McCullers (perhaps unsurprisingly, given her age at the time of writing) is also very good on the fizz of adolescent longing; ‘Her face felt like it was scattered in pieces and she could not keep it straight. The feeling was a whole lot worse than being hungry for any dinner, yet it was like that. I want – I want – I want – was all that she could think about – but just what this real want was she did not know.’

There’s politics, too, and anger. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter has been read as anti-Fascist, which I can definitely see. A couple of the characters are preoccupied with fighting injustice in different ways; there is a doctor who struggles with racial injustice, and a violently self-destructive Communist, trying to open the eyes of the world to everything he finds to be wrong with it. In the end, though, the novel left me feeling a little flat. There was a lot that was good about it, but its vaguely nihilistic world view was a little too much for me – like a teenager trying a little too hard to be cool, I just couldn’t quite believe that someone with such a gift for observing the world could be quite so disillusioned with it. I haven’t read any of McCullers’s later work, but I really hope she grew out of it.

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Around the World in 80 Books (#AW80Books) Challenge

I think I may have mentioned once or twice (or more) that I like to travel. Well, ‘like’ is a bit of an understatement. If they had Travellers’ Anonymous meetings, somebody probably would have dragged me into one by the hair a long time ago.

I think I also mentioned a few weeks ago that I’d like to start to read more diversely. This is something I was pretty good at when I was younger (I did a postcolonial fiction module at university, and got a little bit obsessed, especially with Indian fiction), but I’ve lost it a little as I’ve got older.

Well, imagine my joy when I discovered yesterday that Sarah and Lucy (over at the fantastic Hard Book Habit) have had the rather brilliant idea of trying to go Around the World in 80 Books . This challenge literally could not have been more ‘me’ if I’d thought it up myself.

The gist of it is, participants should read their way around the world in 80 books. It’s very low-pressure, with no deadline and no set itinerary – and only one or two suggested ground rules, such as trying to hit every continent (ideas for Antarctica, anybody?), including a sea-based book, and reading one book which features travel (Orient Express, hot air balloon, road trip etc). One of my favourite things is that books can be fiction or non-fiction, so it really is pretty broad – which makes it perfect for those of us who are easily bored…

As you may have picked up by now, I’m not very good at sticking to plans (travel, reading, or life in general!), but I have set up this page to track my round-the-world reading from the beginning of 2016.

Now, if only British Airways gave airmiles for fictional travels…