I can empathise with the map-gazing protagonist of this novel - and we happen to share a name, too. He pores over an atlas, looking for escape and adventure, and strikes upon the wild heart of Australia as the place to do this, an expanse of nothing as far as the cartographers are concerned, ripe to disappear into for a while. There's something wonderfully seductive about a map, where everything only exists in suggestion and approximation; nothing viewed from this distance can really resemble the reality on the ground, so the imagination tends to fill in the abstract and undefined.
As author Douglas Kennedy's first novel (coming after a number of travel books), there's a sense of the writer honing his craft about this story, but what would become the hallmarks of his work are in place from the start. You've got the slightly disaffected male protagonist looking for an escape from his life for one reason or another, the stranger in a strange land and the femme fatale upon whom the story turns.
Kennedy's novels tend to walk a highwire between literary fiction and full-blown thriller; the plot is skilfully-crafted and the tension racketed upon scene on scene, but it's all immersed in a sense of place that doesn't come through in your average thriller. Partly because the protagonists tend to be such discontented wanderers, the location almost becomes a character in itself, and is invariably a crucial part of the story.
This is true here, but to a lesser extent than in his later books - although maybe this is because of the nature of the place. Outback Australia's limitless spaces are not as easy to characterise as the intimate Paris in The Woman in the Fifth or Stasi-era Berlin in The Moment, but they certainly still play a part here.
The protagonist Nick arrives in Australia with a loose sense of purpose and with several weeks to fill, buys a cheap camper van and sets off from Darwin. Sooner or later, boy meets girl, and what at first glance looks like a holiday romance that might be just the cure for his ennui leads to an altogether darker affair from which there may be no escape.
Kennedy knows how to write memorable characters, and while those in the Dead Heart aren't his most enduring, they do their jobs well here, and you're pulled into the spiralling action and tension of the story with them. There isn't a great deal of scene-setting here, and little-to-no background on Nick, so the book pretty much hits the ground running and accelerates from there.
There's a moment in all the author's books when it looks like the central character has got themselves into a hole without hope of escape - here that hole is particularly sizeable and stretches for the greater part of the novel. There's a sense of perpetual peril and threat, and yet there's still time to develop character and build in a little background to the main machinations of the story.
For my money, Douglas Kennedy's books get better and better, so in theory this should be a fairly modest affair to kick things off. Actually, it's a great little thriller - it lacks the characters, atmosphere or enduring punch to compare to his later novels, but it's a great place to start enjoying his compelling storytelling.
This was Douglas Kennedy's first novel, having previously written three works of non-fiction of the travel variety. It's quite unlike any of his later stories, but a similarly gripping read nonetheless.
The basic premise is that of an American journalist, Nick Hawthorne, who is facing a bit of a mid-life crisis when he is unexpectedly seduced by a map of Australia he finds in a book shop. The story therefore begins with his arrival in Darwin, where he's trying to find a suitable vehicle for driving across thousands of miles of open, totally deserted outback to Perth, in the west of the country.
After paying considerably more than its worth for an old-model VW camper van he begins his drive. However, at his second stop for petrol in the middle of the desert he meets a naive 21-year-old who has apparently never left her native village in the outback before now. She comes along for the ride and for a while they enjoy the 'sun, sand, surf, swill [and] satiation' of a town on the coast together. However, things quickly change, and Nick's romantic idylls of Australia swiftly turn into his worst nightmare.
I can't tell you more than this without giving away too much of the story, and it's much more interesting to discover how it unfolds for yourself. Suffice to say that the title contains several different meanings within it, all of which will become clear to you as you delve into the story.
At only 199 pages this is considerably shorter than Douglas Kennedy's other books, which is a bit of shame, as I find all of his to be gripping page-turners that I dislike coming to the end of. However, this particular story doesn't actually need to be any longer than it is. As it is, it's a nice, compact book which can be read within a day or even less if you really commit yourself to the task. It's likely that, like me, once you reach a certain point in the story you won't actually want to put it down until you reach the end.
Fortunately one parallel The Dead Heart does have with Kennedy's other works of fiction is the convincing characterisation. In 1994, the year of the book's release, Kennedy was about to turn 40, so he was roughly the same age as his protagonist. It is clear that he understood perfectly the mentality of a man who has reached that particular stage in his life, and was therefore able to characterise him very well. Having said this, he also does an excellent job of bringing to life all the other characters we meet too.
I like the fact that Nick is not an entirely likeable character either. Whilst it is still possible to empathise with the situation he finds himself in, he is not entirely a helpless victim, and this makes him much more real.
The story itself is highly unrealistic, and in fact I would not be at all surprised if the book caused outrage in Australia on its release. In fact, I'd be surprised if it's even been released in Australia, such is the extent to which it drags the name of all Aussies thoroughly through the mud, and even hangs them out to dry caked in scorched earth afterwards.
The fact that the situations themselves are unrealistic actually detracts little from the overall quality of the work, partly due to the excellent characterisation and partly due to the gripping, adrenaline-pumping nature of the story. In fact, I found a review on a website called 'The Edge' which sums up the story perfectly:
This is 'A Texas Chainsaw Massacre' flat-share with 'Home & Away.'
Amusingly well-put, and I couldn't have said it better myself, so thank you for the contribution, Mr Gerald Houghton.
The only small criticism I have of The Dead Heart is that the ending is quite weak. Having previously read some of Kennedy's other novels, I was ready for the possibility of this one not reaching a tidy, happy ending. Kennedy has a tendency to be ruthless when it comes to the destiny of his main characters, so you can never predict whether all will end well for them or not. While I won't tell you whether this one ends happily or not, I will say that it was all wound up rather too quickly and neatly, leaving me feeling a bit disappointed. I felt I had invested rather a lot of emotional energy in the story and then this was not justly rewarded with the swift ending, which felt overly rushed. However, I'm willing to make allowances as it was his debut novel, and in fact for a first work of fiction, this is highly impressive.