John MacKenna's A Haunted Heart is a rather beautiful story about an elderly Irish woman looking back on her life in which she joined the Quakers and fell in love with someone who did not love her back. The entire novel has a lovely Victorian feel to it and is ripe with mystery, forbidden love, religious fervour, guilt and redemption.
A lifetime of journals
It is 1959. Elizabeth Hallshead is 78 and has spent the past 60 years living in England. She returns to her native Ireland after the death of her cousin, whose house she has inherited. She takes a lifetime of journals with her — 69 volumes — and prepares to write an account of her friend Abigail's life for Abigail's daughters.
I first met your mother, Abigail Beale (née Meredith), in the February of 1899. You were three years old, then, Lydia, and you, Myfanwy, were two. But before I tell you of that, I need to step back a short space, to the first time I saw Joshua Jacob, for he was to be the one who brought your mother and me together and the one who caused the separation between you and your mother.
But writing this memorial is not a straightforward or easy task. First, Elizabeth is gravely ill. Though we never find out the precise nature of her medical condition, we know that she is not expected to live very long. She is in the care of the kindly local doctor, who is just a phone call away, but sometimes she is in so much physical pain she cannot continue to work on the manuscript. (By contrast, when she isn't in pain, she enjoys exploring the countryside on her bicycle!)
And second, there are aspects to Abigail's story which are mentally painful to recall. This is accompanied by the feeling that Elizabeth is holding things back, though whether she is trying to spare the feelings of Abigail's daughter or is unable to confront her own truth, it is difficult to tell.
The novel is structured around these two intertwined narratives — Elizabeth's present day (told in diary form) in which she writes the memorial, deals with her illness and tries to track down Abigail's children; and her past (told in manuscript form) in which she joined an offshoot of the Quakers, run by the charismatic if misguided Joshua, and met Abigail, who had sacrificed her marriage and motherhood to become a disciple.
In both narratives, Elizabeth's voice is engaging and intimate, and while it's clear she is trying to set the record straight for Abigail's children, ultimately she is confessing to a forbidden love she has kept secret for more than half a century.
In fact, this seems to be a recurring them in MacKenna's work; two of his other novels which I have read and reviewed on this site — The Last Fine Summer, published in 1997, and The Space Between Us, published in 2009 — also deal with forbidden love, albeit two completely different types.
A moving story
A Haunted Heart is a strangely beguiling story dealing with big themes — remorse and longing, religious extremism and personal accountability, amongst others — set in a time when not everyone was free to live the life they wished to live.
It is incredibly moving in places — at times it made me angry, at other times it filled me with despair — but in the tradition of great Irish literature it is always restrained and never sentimental.
Sadly, A Haunted Heart appears to be out of print, but you should be able to source a copy from secondhand booksellers online for just a few pennies. I paid about 2 pence for mine; I would have easily paid £20 (and more) for it and thought it value for money.