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Andrew Taylor's latest novel Bleeding Heart Square is another standalone and another of his historical novels that, on this occasion is mainly set around the time of the rise of fascism, with another linked story taking place four years before in 1930.
The cover carries words from a previous review in The Times: "One of Britain's best writers of psychological suspense". And in Bleeding Heart Square, psychological suspense it is, at its best, with the very clever writing you come to expect, anticipate and impatiently await from Andrew Taylor.
Why clever? This is a story that is effectively a series of stories of different people's lives and ultimately, how they interconnect. There is a more than one mystery to be solved, but the main one is what happened to Philippa Penhow? And this is where the adept touch of cleverness comes in. The novel opens with the (unusual) use of the second person narrative (see below): someone is talking to the reader, someone has access to Philippa Penhow's diary, someone knows something, but we have no idea who it is. All the way through the novel, this technique is used to open another thread in the plot. We have a hint of something that happened to Penhow, followed by the investigation of fact through the main characters.
And how is this put together?
In 1934, Lydia Langstone escapes from her abusive and Mosley-admiring husband. She has nowhere to go, other than to seek refuge with her estranged father, Captain Ingleby-Lewis who is residing at no. 7 Bleeding Heart Square – a boarding house. This puts her directly on the spot, in the very place that Penhow owned. But Penhow disappeared in 1930 and the house is now under the control of one Joseph Serridge, a landlord to whom rotting hearts are being sent and a thug of a man to whom Penhow became engaged.
Recently returned from India, struggling journalist Rory Wentwood has his eye on no. 7 Bleeding Heart Square (with a plain clothesed copper keeping an eye on him) and eventually he moves in. Both Rory and Lydia are experiencing lives in transition. Young Rory is coming to terms with a girlfriend (niece of Penhow) who clearly wants to become his ex-girlfriend, alongside his struggle to find work in London. Lydia is learning independence, including the basics of how to budget on very little money in a world where women may have a political vote but divorce remains extremely difficult. The meeting of the two characters and their shared journey, where they slowly open up to one another is no surprise and is a delight.
A claustrophobic atmosphere encapsulates all here: the London setting of the square; the boarding house itself; the relationships between characters both past and present and across that divide. Taylor, yet again and dependably so, creates scenes that feel true to the period in question. A Mosley rally at the local church is tensely anticipated and delivered with the awful experience of abandoned thuggery that you'd expect.
The joy of this novel, for me, was in reading the stories of Lydia and Rory and learning of their adaption to new lives, during that time. With these wonderfully created sympathetic characters, it was imperative to know how they fared in the new worlds they found themselves in. I'd have to admit that the main plot became secondary to that element of the reading, for me.
Where Taylor has been criticised for this novel in reviews elsewhere, it's been because of perceived overuse of the "arm of coincidence". I'd counteract with the comment of "Remember the time". The upper classes were even more "I'll scratch your back, if you'll scratch mine", to their own, in those days." They kept to their own crowd and did not mingle lower. To do so was dirty. We are not talking a time of pauper-makes-entrepreneur-makes-millionaire here, as we celebrate today. Then, you were one of the set or you weren't; you had (enough) money or a title or you didn't. Thus Lydia's administrative job at a local solicitor practice is all the more convincing. Likewise, the close relationships of those of a certain social standing came as no surprise.
But, if I have one criticism, I felt the ending a curve ball too far. On that I will say no more, as I might spoil it for you. But I didn't care really, because, as I said before, it was Lydia's and Rory's journeys and development that got me hooked, more than the main plot and that's what had me turning the pages to the end. I cared for both of them and was not let down, with a realistic ending as opposed to a syrupy romantic ending.
So, in conclusion, Bleeding Heart Square is a wonderfully claustrophobic and psychological suspense novel that hits all the right buttons. It also captures the period with loving and strict attention to detail. It also creates main characters so sympathetic, you'd be a block of ice not to appreciate the detail, with other characters so potentially evil you'd take up exorcism to understand them. Bleeding Heart Square hits the right note for the time of the setting: explores, devours and lays it on the table as is. This is a beautiful, but ever so realistic tribute to the memory of those times. Do not let it pass you by.
Final note: re second person viewpoint. To date, I know of only one novel which engages this on a full time basis and that is The Bride Stripped Bare by the previously anonymous Nikki Gemmell. It has its merits and serves its purpose. It has the writer talking to you, the reader. Directly. It adds immediacy – especially as it tends to be present tense – and an almost direct invitation for dialogue. In Bleeding Heart Square, its use adds to the suspense.