The Course of the Heart

I’m currently reading M. John Harrison’s The Course of the Heart. It opens like this:

When I was a tiny boy I often sat motionless in the garden, bathed in sunshine, hands flat on the rough brick of the garden path, waiting with a prolonged, almost painful expectation for whatever would happen, whatever was contained by that moment, whatever revelation lay dormant in it.

The sentence sets the tone for whole novel: a constant sense of something wondrous or dreadful existing parallel – or perhaps at a slight angle – to everyday life. The plot (and I’m only half-way through) centres of a trio of friends who took part (or may have taken part – it’s not altogether clear) in an occult ritual years earlier, the consequences of which still haunt them.

Their alchemical experiments involve a travel manuscript from the 1930s which discusses, in an entirely elliptical fashion, a mysterious city called the Coeur. The attempt to invoke (if that’s what it was) this medieval city involves a sinister figure called Yaxley, part conman and part magician.

The power of the book comes from the way the intrusions of the magical into the real are handled: in moments of disconnection, snatches of conversation oddly at cross purposes, images vaguely seen and then as quickly forgotten, all set in a very prosaic England of bedsits and railway stations and council housing. Exactly what’s happening is never clear but the prose builds a growing sense of menace, recalling that childhood conviction of revelation and terror implicit in the rough brick of every garden path.

They tell me his book Light is very good, too.

Jeff Sparrow

Jeff Sparrow is a Walkley Award-winning writer, broadcaster and former editor of Overland.

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