Fiction – paperback; Penguin Modern Classics; 320 pages; 2001.
Carson McCullers was 23 years old when she wrote this deeply affecting and insightful novel which is set in the depression-era South.
While it is largely thought to be a kind of memoir (the young girl Mick Kelly, who teeters between being a playful tomboy and proper young lady, is supposedly based on McCuller’s own experiences), it does the book a disservice to call it such. Instead this is a wonderfully realised coming-of-age novel that is told from the perspective of four divergent characters: a young girl, a drunken socialist, a black doctor and a sympathetic deaf mute.
In many ways each of the characters share similarities: they are yearning for something that will help them “grow” emotionally. The unwitting “channel” who helps them achieve this is the deaf mute John Singer, whose inability to hear and speak allows him to take on board his confidante’s secrets without fear of passing their “confessions” on.
During the course of a year, he befriends Mick, Jake Blount and Dr Copeland, who allow him glimpses of their troubled and complex inner lives. The friendships are touching, but they are, in many ways, one-sided. Singer, unable to voice his own fears, eventually reaches breaking point — with terrible, heart-breaking consequences that left this reader, at least, reeling.
When it was published in 1940, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter caused a literary sensation, not least because the author was so young. While there is no real plot to speak of, with each chapter devoted to individual characters in turn, it certainly addresses some big themes — isolation, loneliness, racial tension and the desire to escape small town life, among others. More than 60 years on such themes still resonate.
But while McCullers is renowned for the maturity and compassion with which she tackles her subject, she is also incredibly talented at describing scenes so vividly the reader is immediately transported to another time and place.
I loved this book and plan on reading more by this remarkable author. But if you’re looking for a straightforward narrative that requires little thought on your behalf, then this book is probably not for you. On the other hand, if you want to read something “chewy”, something that will make you think, then you won’t go wrong with The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.