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Child of My Heart - Alice McDermott

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Author: Alice McDermott / Genre: Fiction

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      18.09.2007 14:17
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      A must read novel that lingers on long after its been read.

      Books are, to me, the staple diet of the mind. I could no more go without books than exist without food or water. I read widely across all genres, never quailing at what other readers would not attempt. I read reviews from other people, preferring these to the general blurb that the Literacy press put out. However, I recently discovered another author who satisfies the exacting standards of both the press and the reading public. Thankfully I will often buy on the word of family or friends, sometimes I will even take the offers from Amazon in mind.
      I do buy a lot from Amazon, mainly as it’s good value, but also because I can drop hints as to what kind of books I would like to read. So, this book came into my hands a month back, a present from my daughter, and I read it in one sitting, totally captivated by the excellent prose and story.
      However, I am getting ahead of myself.

      The author is well-known in America, but less in the UK. Born on 27th June 1953 in Brooklyn, New York, of Irish/American background, Alice McDermott went on to gain both degrees in BA and MA then settling down to teach in various universities. Her previous books have been nominated for several awards and in 1998 her novel, “Charming Billy” was the winner of the National Book Award. “Child of my Heart” is her fifth book, there are several others after this one. If this one is her usual standard then I’ll be buying more.

      The Plot.
      ………….

      The opening line of the book reads as follows,
      ‘I had in my care that summer four dogs, three cats, the Moran kids, Daisy, my eight year-old cousin, and Flora, the toddler child of a local artist.’ So speaks Theresa, aged fifteen, the year-long resident of Long Island and the town’s most sought-after babysitter, gathering all manner of strays to her heart and home. From the months of May through to August, Theresa casts her magic over young and old, animals and plants, until it seems that she alone can filter life through the magic of her fairy-tale powers. Yet she is also a pragmatist, a watcher of people and an adept at turning situations to her own purposes.
      It is a summer when Theresa learns about her power over the men of the town, though she toys with their affections, reserving her heart, though not her growing body, to those that need her the most.
      Her young cousin, Daisy arrives from the city, one of a large family her clothes are shoddy, newly bought, but too large for her frail body. It is Theresa that cares for the waif, clothing her in own well-preserved old clothes, brightening the child’s existence with tales of lollipops trees and the long magic of summer days. But as Daisy’s new glittery shoes take on the aspect of her growing confidence, so the terrible bruises on her body fail to heal.
      As the summer rolls on, and Daisy is allowed a time to be normal, it’s a time to join in Theresa’s busy round of baby-sitting and keeping the darkness at bay. While they splash about in the sea, the future is like a ship on the far horizon, indistinct and unimportant, yet always growing a little closer to shore.

      Characters.

      Wonderfully imagined, each one slips through the narrative like a wisp of smoke. The book is written entirely in the first person narrative, which is incredibly hard to do, but McDermott never falters for one moment. Theresa controls the events of the book, seen through her eyes alone. By her side the people she nurtures, the characters that appear take on shape and form. It is only the importance that she gives to each adult or child that fixes them in the book at all, though when they do appear it’s as if they had always been there, shaky and insubstantial in the distance, waiting to be brought to life by Theresa’s sharp eyes and unfailing vision.

      Prose.

      Darkness and light, sunshine and shadow, McDermott’s prose is a joy to read. Yet it’s not the kind of prose that seeks to be clever, or to stun the reader with its razor-sharp wit. Neither is it overly sentimental, though the denouement sinks under the skin like a barb of wire.
      It’s all this and more. Burgeoning sexuality set against the heroine’s tender heart. The sting of life lived constantly on the edge of poverty set against the trappings of wasted wealth. Theresa is an enigma. Is she truly aware of what she is doing, when sometimes her cruelty outweighs her generous nature? Yet there is no doubt of her love for the children she cares for, or the casual way she seeks to tell her story, for it’s Theresa who controls the narrative. She speaks for all those that cannot speak for themselves, the blighted and the lost, the lonely and the souls that cry out in tempestuous bitterness.
      Yet there are light touches, the sound of the sea, the smell of suntan oil, sand between the toes and all the trappings of summers gone by, or yet to come. Theresa’s summer is timeless and without boundaries. It could be any time or in any place, that’s the beauty of McDermott’s story telling.

      I asked for this book to be added to Dooyoo’s pages because I knew that there are many people who would enjoy the book as much as I did. I also wanted to introduce the author and hope that others have read some of her works.
      I loved this book. I was hooked from page one and couldn’t put it down. The story is strong and the narrative a joy to read. It’s both beautiful and tragic, uplifting and knowing. I wanted the end to turn out different, in fact the end was something of a mystery. Yet I knew that it couldn’t have ended in any other way. I think there is a Theresa inside us all, a child-woman that will never age or die. It’s not “Chick-Lit” but most women (and plenty of men) would read it as a Summer novel. There is something for everyone in this book, described by one press review as “ Enough to turn your heart into a red velvet pin cushion.” In another, “McDermott’s prose slips down like liquid, often carrying alcohol’s lingering sting.”
      Read it as a good story, or read it as one artist would view another’s work, but however you approach it, please read it. It will take you back to your own childhood.

      Available at most outlets, Amazon is selling this at £5.49 new and used from £0.01p.
      Bloomsbury Publishing PLC.
      IBSN No 0 7475 6822 7.
      Pages= 242.

      © Lisa Fuller September 2007.

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