Sometimes, I like to think of my heart as a small, oddly-shaped bookcase. In idle moments, I ponder the books I’d hide away on these secret shelves.
The contents of this theoretical bookshelf are always changing, as I read new books and remember old favourites. The imaginary dust never has the time to settle before the books are once again reshuffled.
I only know one thing for sure about this pretend bookcase: there’d be a special shelf set aside for my favourite sad books.
As anyone who’s read this blog before might have already noticed, I simply can’t resist sad novels. There are so many sad books I’ve enjoyed, and they’re all sad for different reasons. Jude the Obscure, for instance, is sad…but not in the way that Flowers for Algernon or The Little Prince are sad.
To misappropriate one of literature’s most well-known quotations – every unhappy novel is unhappy in its own way.
This week, I’m reviewing a novel that’s amongst the saddest, strangest books I’ve ever read.
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter
by Carson McCullers
Published in 1940
There are books that are sad because they suddenly rip your heart out, reducing you to a sobbing wreck in the space of a few pages. And then, there’s Carson McCullers’ 1940 novel, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. Make no mistake – Carson McCullers will rip your heart out. But she’ll do it with such a gentle flourish that, strangely, you won’t mind.
Like so many things about Lonely Hunter, the novel’s exact setting is vague: a little town, somewhere in America’s south. Tensions between the town’s black and white communities are rising every day, while half a world away, Europe is slowly tumbling into World War Two.
John Singer and Spiros Antonapoulos are the town’s only two deaf-mute men. Singer can read lips and express himself through sign language, while Antonapoulos is stubborn and can sign only a few words. Nonetheless, the two men share a happy existence in the house they share. When Antonapoulos falls ill, his family send him away to live in an institution. Suddenly, Singer must adjust to life alone.
Drawn to the mute are four lonely souls, each seeking solace in Singer’s silent kindness. Biff Brannon is the quiet, wise owner of the cafe where Singer eats his meals. Mick Kelly is a thirteen-year-old girl obsessed with classical music. Jake Blount is an angry young intellectual. And idealistic Doctor Copeland, the town’s black doctor, has had countless children named in his honour, but feels he has no-one to carry on his legacy.
Biff, Mick, Jake and Doctor Copeland find themselves confiding in Singer; telling the deaf man all their thoughts. But Singer is perhaps the loneliest soul of them all.
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is like an annotated guide to human loneliness. Every relationship in the novel is doomed to failure for some reason. Whether it’s age, or gender or politics, there’s always something keeping the novel’s characters apart. Even between Singer and Antonapoulos, there are boundaries Singer refuses to acknowledge.
While our four main characters worship Singer in their own way, Singer in turn worships Antonapoulos. Mick, Jake, Biff and Doctor Copeland each interpret Singer’s silence in a manner which suits them. Singer does the same for Antonapoulos, idolising him even though he is little more than a selfish child.
Lonely Hunter is so much more than just a beautifully written novel. Everything about this McCullers’ writing glistens with wisdom. The way she duplicates the relationships between each of the characters; the way she piles up metaphors – and in particular, the way McCullers presents to us these amazingly complete characters is utter genius.
McCullers makes a particular point of ensuring her characters are always in motion – in particular, their hands. They’re perpetually fidgeting, making fists, or, in Singer’s case, signing words. Every character has their own set of nervous gestures, and the effect is a strange sexual tension that suits this novel so well.
Satisfaction is a motif to which Lonely Hunter turns, time and time again. Mick is writing a song she calls “This Thing I Want, I Know Not What”. Doctor Copeland is judging an essay competition, but isn’t impressed by any of the responses. The frustration hovering above these four people is intense. There is no relief even in sex – it’s an act that divides, rather than unites.
The outlet for this intense longing is not intercourse, but rather discourse. It’s through their discussions with Singer that the characters find some kind of momentary peace. Yet what could be more futile than talking to a deaf man?
While I rave about the novel’s themes and structure, I’m doing Lonely Hunter an enormous injustice if I don’t mention the novel’s effortless beauty. Lonely Hunter might be structurally perfect, but it’s also got a definite soul to it; a musical grace that is unique to this novel. McCullers’ writing is utterly stunning. The passages involving Mick – perhaps McCullers’ favourite character – are especially lyrical:
“Why hadn’t the explorers known by looking up at the sky that the world was round? The sky was curved, like the inside of a huge glass ball, very dark blue with the sprinkles of bright stars. The night was quiet. There was the smell of warm cedars. She was not trying to think of the music at all when it came back to her. The first part happened in her mind just as it had been played. She listened in a quiet, slow way and thought the notes out like a problem in geometry so she would remember. She could see the shape of the sounds very clear and she would not forget them” (p. 108)
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is an exquisite novel. It’s strange, soft and overwhelmingly sad.
For me, Lonely Hunter isn’t sad in the kind of way that is sudden and jarring. It’s sad in a slow way. It’s like water dripping on rocks – gradually, yet ever so surely, this novel will wear you down. It takes a while to build up, to reach its crescendo, but when it gets there, it’s a sweet, soulful song, that ends on a final, uncertain note.
As you read the last few pages of Lonely Hunter, you might feel a flutter of pain at the thought of having to leave these characters behind forever. It’s funny; the way that a novel about loneliness can make you feel such an attachment to these five lonely people.
Official Book to the Future Rating:
Superawesome! – Awesome – Okay – Blah – Superblah!
Should you read it?
Oh, yes. There’s just something so lovely about this novel. It’s just as poetic as its title implies.
In a word: