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With Your Crooked Heart by Helen Dunmore

With Your Crooked Heart (1999)

by Helen Dunmore

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189688,294 (3.6)28



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Paul & Louise are married and childless for 10 years before Louise conceives Anna by an illicit affair with Paul’s younger brother Johnny. Paul is a successful businessman; Johnny runs with the criminal element. Louise becomes an alcoholic because she gained weight with Anna and couldn’t stand being ‘fat’. Because she’s an alcoholic, Paul eventually gets custody of Anna.

It sounds like something you’re read a hundred times, but in Dunmore’s hands, it turns into much more. The story is told from various points of views and persons, but is mainly Louise’s story. As the plot builds to its almost inevitable conclusion, one almost wants to look away and not watch how Louise destroys her life.

This is my first foray into Dunmore’s writing (she won the 1996 Orange Prize—now the Women’s Prize for Fiction—for her book A Spell of Winter). Her writing is so adroit! See the stories that these few words paint:
"I love daylight sleep. First of all there are the hours it eats, that you never have to live."

Only one thing puzzles me: Dunmore uses the phrase “it’s not Nova Scotia” twice in the book. As in:
"‘Not much else for her to do up there.’
'It’s not Nova Scotia, Lou.’
A bit of an odd expression, but I let it go."

I, too, think it’s a bit of an odd expression and, since I live in Nova Scotia, I’m curious about it. Can anybody shed any light on Dunmore’s use of this phrase? 3½ stars.

Read this if: you love intelligent use of words; or you fancy a warning tale about lives that go off the track—through personal choices.

‘Heart’ is a qualifying keyword on the Keyword Reading Challenge at Bookmark to Blog. ( )
  ParadisePorch | Mar 20, 2013 |
Right from page one I knew I was going to enjoy reading this book. Dunmore is definitely one of my favourite authors. I particularly liked her presentation of the relationship between the two brothers, who were very different people and yet connected closely. Also, the breakdown of a marriage was interesting to me - although surprisingly little detail was provided. I'm not exactly fascinated by young children, but I was one myself once, and I found unexpected empathy with the young daughter of the separating couple. It's a story of life and death, of brief moments which have big impacts, and of unrecognized closeness in relationships. ( )
  oldblack | Apr 4, 2012 |
I finished Helen Dunmore's With Your Crooked Heart and enjoyed it enormously. It's a sensuous and visceral read, charting the lives and loves of a small group of people in London and Yorkshire. Dunmore shows us how little hold or control we have over our lives, and she delights in those transcendent moments when people recognise the ties that bind us to each other. If you know her work already, this is one of the better ones.
1 vote johnbakeronline | Jun 10, 2010 |
I zipped through this book, which I saw recommended here on LT. The writing was beautiful, and the story had a lot of potential, but the author just didn't make me care about any of the characters (except one, a child), and I didn't really have a good feel for what motivated most of the adults. A disappointment.

Also, the author used one stylistic device that really irritated me. The chapters vary in point of view, which is fine, but about half of them are narrated in the second person, i.e., "You did this, you thought that." I really couldn't get into that at all, and don't really understand what it was intended to achieve.
  rebeccanyc | Apr 21, 2010 |
I just couldn't take to this. I know we are not necessarily supposed to like the lead characters in novels, but I was unable to get beyond my dislike of all three main adult characters in this book. Nor was it redeemed, for me, by the child in the middle of all the family turmoil. Whilst it was well executed, I decided about a third of the way in that I wanted to be somewhere else, in different literary company. I skim read the rest and found nothing to make me wish I had been more patient. That is just my personal reaction. If you instinctively take to the first couple of chapters, then you will probably like the whole thing. It certainly does not fizzle out. ( )
  dsc73277 | Apr 3, 2010 |
Showing 1-5 of 6 (next | show all)
Dunmore is so skilled at drawing you into this story -- it's about a doomed triangle involving two brothers and the woman they both love -- that it's possible to be lulled into hoping for a happy ending.
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'You shall love your crooked neighbour
With your crooked heart.'
('As I Walked Out One Evening', W. H. Auden)
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Every day for a month, now the sun has shone, and every morning you've brought the same things out into the garden.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0802137709, Paperback)

Fatal love and the ambiguous bond of brotherhood are central to Helen Dunmore's With Your Crooked Heart. Siblings Paul and Johnnie are born more than a decade apart in an East London tenement. Sworn to protect and nurture his brother, Paul elevates them both to a life of wealth and status through a string of dubious land-development deals. As a result, Johnnie has "what Paul never had: he'd had father and brother, all rolled into one, and a future that someone else had already paid for." But with his life mortgaged to his ever-loving brother, the impossibly beautiful Johnnie becomes as compelled by the possibilities of failure as his sibling is by success.

Paul, meanwhile, weds Louise, and his "passion of protectiveness" immediately draws Johnnie into the heart of their marriage. Needless to say, the bride may well wish for less of a ménage à trois:

He sat across the kitchen table from me, smiling, and told me there'd been a complete fuck-up over manufacturing acid in a farmhouse in Herefordshire. He would have made a million. It was always a million with Johnnie: some glittering amount of money that you couldn't really pin down.... We let ourselves think he was like a child. It was the angle we looked at him. When you see a cat play, if you can call it play, you thank God it's the size it is.
But after giving birth to a daughter, Louise attempts to drown her own secrets with drink, beginning a slow progression of loss that will drag down her family in its wake. "I could look back and show you each step of the way that's got us here," she recalls, mapping her melancholy journey. Yet when Louise is presented with one last chance to save Johnnie from himself, some sort of redemption seems in the offing.

Dunmore's success here, as in such earlier novels as Talking to the Dead and Your Blue-Eyed Boy, is her ability to combine sublime prose with a swift and sure-footed narrative. Yet With Your Crooked Heart also goes beyond this alchemy of poetry and plot: it delivers an understated, emphatic study of alcoholism, adult self-delusion, and the emotional relativity of all relationships in a world where "not being able to trust yourself is the biggest thrill of all." --Rachel Holmes

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 17:58:29 -0400)

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With his life mortgaged to his ever-loving and protective real-estate mogul brother, the impossibly beautiful Johnnie becomes as compelled by the possibilities of failure as his sibling is by success.

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