With Your Crooked Heartby Helen Dunmore
“A briskly paced page-turner . . . Dunmore’s rich writing–by turns muscular and poetic–makes With Your Crooked Heart impossible to put down.” –The Washington Post
Best-selling British author Helen Dunmore – novelist, poet, and first-ever winner of the Orange Prize for the year’s best fiction by a woman’delivers a dark, twisting tale of betrayal and fierce love.
In diamond-sharp, sensuous prose, With Your Crooked Heart introduces Louise,a tough-minded and beautiful Londoner trapped in a battle between two brothers. Paul and Johnnie were born twelve years apart, in a one-bedroom flat in London’s impoverished East End. Paul claws his way to success by de-veloping contaminated land; self-destructive Johnnie deals in crime. Outsiders find the brothers seductive, not realizing that their extraordinary sibling bond burns those who get too close. When unsuspecting Louise marries Paul, Johnnie is part of the contract, and their daughter, Anna, is tangled in it from birth.
Eventually Johnnie’s underground activities force him to flee the country, and Louise goes with him. Their trip sets in motion inevitabilities that have smoldered beneaththe surface from the beginning: a dramatic, redemptive chain of events that devastates every branch of this crooked family tree.
With Your Crooked Heart‘s bold, haunting narrative brilliantly exhibits Dunmore’s “poet’s ear for language and photographer’s eye for images” (Newsday) and confirms The Guardian‘s claim that Dunmore is “an electrifying and original talent.”
“Haunting . . . a twisting, sensually written tale.” –The New York Times Book Review
“A briskly paced page-turner . . . Dunmore’s rich writing”by turns muscular and poetic’makes With Your Crooked Heart impossible to put down.” –The Washington Post
“Timeless . . . With Your Crooked Heart is written in beautiful, poetic prose that homes in on the conflicts within each character. . . . The result is a novel that is conflicting, absorbing, and classically tragic.” –The Austin Chronicle
“[Dunmore has] a poet’s ear for language and a photographer’s eye for images.” –Newsday
“Dunmore’s dreamy, lucid language makes this haunting novel as lovely as it is wrenching.” –Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“Psychologically complex and brilliantly nuanced . . . these tangled lives, troubled and darkly fulfilling as they are, prove to be utterly absorbing.” –Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“An electrifying and original talent.” –The Guardian (U.K.)
“[With Your Crooked Heart] is a powerful book which unites strong characterization and a rip-roaring plot with an archetypal quality somewhere between a fairy story and Greek tragedy.” –The Times Literary Supplement (London)
Every day for a month now the sun has shone, and every, morning you’ve brought the same things out into the garden.
A faded cotton quilt. A pillow for the back of your neck. A tall jug of water and a glass.
But today you leave the quilt behind and walk out naked through the French windows, pillow under one arm and jug and glass in the other hand. You kneel on the yellow stone, place the jug and glass where you can reach them, and the pillow where it will support the back of your neck.
You lie down on the warm stone, and wriggle your body until it fits. Then you relax, and the terrace bears you up as if you are floating out to sea. Sun has been pouring on to it since seven o’clock, and every grain of store is packed with heat. Sun pours now on to the glistening mound of your belly, on to your parted thighs, your arms, your fingers, your face. No part of you resists, no part does not shine. The moist lips of your vulva are caught in a shining tangle of hair.
Inside you the baby thuds deep, touching your bladder. You look down through your eyelashes, and the stroke of a baby limb sweeps across you, under your skin. You look up, where a jet on its way to Heathrow unzips the sky. You wonder for a moment about the people in it, where they’re going, where they are coming from, what they feel, what they want. You think of them with their hands on the arm-rests, tense for landing. But you’re not really curious, just glad that you’re down here on solid earth.
The days slip by, marked only by getting up to fetch another jug of water, or making a plateful of sandwiches, or trying to do the crossword until the black-and-white squares fizz and you collapse back on the pillow. You’re not good at puzzles anyway; never have been. No good at crosswords, no good at riddles or charades or remembering jokes, though you always think you will remember them, while you’re still laughing at them.
Here you are. No cloud in your sky, and there’ll be none all day. There’s a small, burning blue square above the high walls. You don’t need the newspaper to tell you how hot it’s been, though you quite like the headlines and the pictures of girls on their lunch-breaks, flat out on the grass in their bras and knickers. It’s another world, one which you never want to go back to.
The birds don’t really sing in the middle of the day. They drowse away the heat in the jungle of buddleia and bamboo, and sometimes you hear a bubble of song rising in their throats, but it never bursts. You turn your head into the crook of your arm and your world grows smaller still. You smell your skin and watch your flesh tanning until it matches the burnt brown of the grass you don’t look after properly. Inside the sycamore by the wall, there’s a wood-pigeon. Prr-ccoo, it goes, prrr-cooo. You love its hot and sleepy stammer more than anything else in the garden. That’s why you won’t let Paul prune the sycamore, even though he says it’s nothing but an overgrown weed and you ought to cut it down. You could put in something worth having. A white lilac, or a tree of heaven.
There’s a smell of cat-piss, and buddleia. A honeyed smell which draws the butterflies. The garden simmers with heat and wasps, cat-piss and cabbage whites. In the little fountain, water wobbles then spurts up.
One day you’ll chop everything back, or Paul will. But you’re at home in London gardens like this one, overgrown, rank and fat with weeds. It reminds you of when you were a child, when you were four or five, tagging after the bigger kids, in and out of fireweed and rotten fencing. You like buddleia and bramble, and jam-jar traps for wasps, and flying ants, and the Russian vine that’s climbed like a wave over the back wall, and swamped it. There’s honeysuckle in your garden, and a stand of bamboo. You pull out the new shoots of bamboo from their shafts, and nibble the cold, moist tips.
You can lie naked in your garden and no one can see you. That’s what money does. You have your privacy, bang in the heart of London. You can sprawl out on the stone. You’re pregnant: what business is it of anyone else’s? There’s the fountain that was dry when you came, but you slashed back the thorns and bought a pump and now the water flows. You could listen all day long to the water bubbling up, a soft plucking sound as it rises, then the splash of drops into the bowl.
It’s early August. Your legs are stalks while your breasts are heavy with green and blue veins. Your nipples are wide and brown, ready to give milk. You feel the child thudding inside you, and you feel the sun.
Paul put carp in the pond under the fountain. The water is deep, and the carp are blotched white. They swim in the murk and silt, and rise to nuzzle the top of the water when they want food. Then something steers them down. You are sure that they’re blind, and that they’re white because they were already old when Paul bought them. But neither of you knows anything about fish. You’d like to touch them, but you’re afraid you’ll hurt them. The white patches look like velvet, but they might be fungus.
You don’t want anything. You don’t even want the baby to be born. Time doesn’t move any more, it drips like syrup. You’ve got a garden with high walls and a locked door, in the heart of London. You don’t have to go out in the traffic if you don’t want to. If you want shopping, you can telephone and get it delivered. You are happy here.
You sit up and pour water into your glass. It’s clear and warm and you drink the long glass thirstily, swallowing it into yourself. You want more.
You want to be touched. In your condition, Paul tiptoes around you. How can you know that it’s out of consideration? Is he put off by the sight of you? It’s true, you don’t look like yourself. You’re blazing with veins on your belly and breasts. You don’t look anything like the neat pictures in pregnancy books. You look like one of those seed-pods that explode when you touch them. No one in his right mind would go near you.
The cat knows you. She’s a scruffy orange cat with black paws, thin as a whip except when she’s bulging with kittens. She slips out now, from the nest where she’s put her latest litter, at the base of the bamboo. You can’t see the nest from here, but you have tracked her once, and watched where she’s hidden the kittens in a heap of dry leaves. She streaks across the garden, showing herself to you boldly, because you’re always here and she can predict you. You never feed her, or try to touch her.
It’s the pond that interests her, and the carp. She has had one of them already. You saw her wait and wait, flexed, the tip of her tail moving. From time to time she dabbed her paw above the water like a hypnotist swinging a gold watch. She waited until her shadow had become part of things for the fish in their deep world, and they lazed up and showed themselves at the water surface. She shot her steel claw through the water and got one. It was small. She couldn’t reach the monsters with their ripe white flesh, but she plucked out this little burning orange fish and bit its head off. Her head closed around the carp and stripped it of flesh. She let you see her fast, convulsive eating, and when she’d finished she licked off her paws, dipping her head and rasping them with her tongue until she was perfect outside as well as in.
The sun is blinding. When you stand up, you stagger a bit, and the garden goes dark. There is sweat in a slick all over you. You stoop and grope for the jug of water and when you have it by the handle you lift it high and pour it over your hot and sweating body. It runs down you as if you are the slick stone under a fountain. You feel each runnel of the water like sherbet prickling in your mouth, then it caresses you. You pour slowly, so you’ll miss nothing. The surface of your skin drinks in the water thirstily, and you think of the baby inside you, packed tight, its thighs and arms crossed as you saw them on the last scan. Not free-floating any more. Packed tight, waiting, gathering itself for the dive. You feel pity for it that it has to come out, and you will never be able to protect it again as you can now. Your food feeds it, your heart beats for it, your warmth curves around it. You are enough.
The cat is there, her paw in the water, waiting. You think what it’s like to be lazing at the surface like one of those carp, plump and ripe and stupid. And then the claw, like steel ripping you through, scooping out the guts and white strings of your body’s innards so quickly that they think they are still alive, and they wince in the daylight. You think what that slash of the claw would feel like as it emptied you. It would be like having your heart held up to you, in front of your face. The thing nobody sees, the naked heart, red and wincing, thinking it is still alive.
You move towards the cat and she shrinks back into the bushes. You crouch and go forward between the buddleias. Their pointed leaves blaze black shadows over you. You are printed and touched with every step you take. The light is thick and insect-ridden. A spiderweb clings to your shoulder and you pull it off with sticky fingers. You wade deeper into leaves and sour undergrowth. There is the cat, back humped, eyes on you. Her eyes are big in the gloom. She nets every inch of you.
You sink down. A branch brushes the back of your neck and you squat, your belly pointing towards the cat. You are hidden, both of you. Even the passing white thread of an aeroplane can’t see you. The leaves quake into stillness, now that you are still. The cat watches, and you watch the cat. You know she has her litter near, her second of the year, and her kittens are already half-grown. They will be feral cats, like her, living on luck.
You don’t want to touch them or look at them, but she doesn’t know that. You stare, she stares. You squat and you run your hands over your tense, strained thighs. In two months you’ll have to give birth, but not here. Somewhere where there are people watching you, watching out for you. But you don’t want them, you don’t want the bustle of their faces round you. Not even Paul’s: no. You don’t want him with you when the baby is born.
The cat hisses, warning you off. You have stopped her catching another fish, and now you are coming too close to her nest. You retreat, and the buddleia leaves slap softly against you, then let you go.
You’re out in the sun. You have never been so happy. All month the sun has shone and the traffic has growled outside the walls. You smell the fumes through the leaves. You are secret, on the inside of the wall, while outside the tarmac melts into sticky puddles.
The cat darts through a tangle of sunburnt grass. There is no cloud. You’ve done wrong, but your sky is savagely clear. You know you’ll pay, but you don’t feel that knowledge as any more than a small darkness inside yourself, like a hand of cloud.
You hear the key in the door, on the other side of the house. You steady yourself on your stalks of legs, you run your palms down your burning sides. You face the French windows he’ll come through.
It’s Johnnie. You knew it was him. He puts the key in the door a different way from Paul. Not your husband, but your husband’s brother. He comes out of the house, into the sun. You seem to see him shrug the indoor darkness off him, so it falls like a spill of ink at his feet. And he stands opposite you, saying, `Well? How’s it going?’
And you say nothing. He reaches out his hand. You draw back, smiling.
He looks at the veins growing through your skin like blue and green roses, your brown nipples, your belly. You don’t disgust him.
`Fucking unbelievable,’ he says.
`You ought to believe it,’ you say.
He moves away to sit on the edge of the pond. He lifts a handful of water, cups it, lets it fall. You watch a fish rise to his fingers. Under the water Johnnie’s finger tickles its heavy, velvety side.
`I could lift it out,’ he says, `just like that. It wants to be caught.’
`It wouldn’t want to be, once it was,’ you say.
He turns a sharp bright flash of his look on you. You want him. You want him to come over with his wet hands and open you and fuck you. You feel your legs tremble under the weight of what they’re carrying. But you won’t, no. Once was good, once was right, once was enough.
©1999 by Helen Dunmore. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.