In My Good Books: ‘From The Heart’ by Susan Hill

From the Heart follows protagonist, Olive, as she navigates the complex social world of the 1950s. From the author of The Woman in Black, Hill presents a novel that is less haunting, but equally as powerful. From the Heart was published in 2017, making the exploration of coming of age, motherhood and sexuality as pertinent for the reader of 2018, despite the 1950s setting. Quaint friendship meets harrowing grief in this short but captivating novel.

The novel begins by presenting the family dynamics of the Piper family, and in particular the cold temperament of Olive’s recently deceased mother. Olive decides to pursue her love for literature and begins studying at university, where she is acquainted with Malcolm. Malcolm and Olive begin a seemingly monotonous relationship, until one night changes Olive’s life perpetually. A confused and somewhat naive Olive slowly comes to the realisation that she is pregnant, and that as an unmarried woman she is not entitled to any form of medical abortion. In the setting of the unforgiving and unyielding society of the 50s, Olive finds herself lost and desperate, as she comes face-to-face with the reality of her situation.

Admittedly, the beginning of From the Heart failed to captivate me, however I soon realised that this novel was not to be underestimated. From the initial dynamics of Olive’s relationship with Malcolm, both the reader and Olive herself are aware that she is not fulfilled in this heterosexual relationship. Yet, the underpinning missing element of Olive’s character is neither clear for the reader or Olive until the end part of the novel, when she meets Thea. Thea seemingly forces Olive to confront the feelings society forces her to repress, as Olive and Thea begin a passionate, yet hidden, relationship.

From the Heart powerfully – yet somewhat covertly – highlights the stigmatisation of individuals within a heteronormative society. The suppression of Olive’s true sexuality seems to perplex her throughout the novel as she questions, “What was this? She was not so ignorant or naive as to be completely unaware – remembering the women her mother had referred to obliquely, those with the shingled hair and men’s evening suits.” (154) This description throughout the novel shows the ostracisation and stereotyping of homosexual members of public within this societal era. The taboo of this topic is reflected through the narrative as the sexuality of the characters is never overtly discussed, highlighting the rigid societal attitude.

While Olive’s life is a rollercoaster of grief and temporary joy, her love for reading never falters. From the Heart presents the power of literature as a form of escapism; despite the turmoil of Olive’s life, she seems to always find comfort through the therapeutic action of reading. Hill suggests that literature serves a different purpose throughout each stage of our life, whether a childhood hobby, an intellectual passion, or a means of desperate escapism.  While critics have acclaimed From the Heart as a ‘coming of age’ story, I think the overwhelming emotional experience of Olive should not be overlooked. This novel presents a young woman’s battles with societal norms, her identity, and grief. When she seemingly has nothing left – no degree, no family, no job and no hope – Olive is still able to pick up a book and escape her tragic reality.

~ Harriet Hansford


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