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The Heart Is a Burial Ground
'There is an addictive pungency to this exotic tale of lives lived loudly' Sunday Times
'The remarkable life of Caresse Crosby, now retold by her great-granddaughter' Observer
A vivid and inventive debut novel about four generations of women in a family, their past and their legacy, which evokes the work of Kate Atkinson, Tessa Hadley and Virginia Baily.
'I will describe it as best I can. This is their story. Or perhaps just mine. Let us begin, again . . .'
On a brisk day in 1970, a daughter arrives at her mother's home to take care of her as she nears the end of her life. `Home' is the sprawling Italian castle of Roccasinibalda, and Diana's mother is the legendary Caresse Crosby, one half of literature's most scandalous couple in 1920s Paris, widow of Harry Crosby, the American heir, poet and publisher who epitomised the `Lost Generation'.
But it was not only Harry who was lost. Their incendiary love story concealed a darkness that marked mercurial Diana and still burns through the generations: through Diana's troubled daughters Elena and Leonie, and Elena's young children.
Moving between the decades, between France, Italy and the Channel Islands, Tamara Colchester's debut novel is an unforgettably powerful portrait of a line of extraordinary women, and the inheritance they give their daughters.
'Sensual, evocative and rich with observational truth, this is a vivid and intricate portrait of three extraordinary women' Jeremy Page, author of Salt
'Evocative' Good Housekeeping
'This is a bold, striking and confident novel filled with vivid, sometimes shocking, scenes. It spans decades, generations and continents without ever feeling disjointed. This is a stunning introduction to an intriguing new voice in British fiction, who does real justice to her prodigious forebear' Netgalley reviewer
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What Reviewers Are Saying
Since finishing this book I've learnt that it initially started out life as a biography before morphing into a novel. The starting point being Caresse Crosby who has reinvented herself from plain old Mary - a product of the Boston monied set - and has set about creating an artist's retreat in a fabulous Italian castle. All this ambition though is at the expense of any kind of relationship with her daughter Diana.
I spent the first 50 pages marvelling at just how revolting Caresse and Diana are. Their lives are almost summed up by Diana's son-in-law on her death "Elena, your mother didn't die from that stroke; she died the first time she walked into a room and none of the men looked up".
They live for love, sex and seduction and choose men carelessly. They are selfish beyond measure and it's no wonder that the third generation - Diana's daughters Elena and Leonie - completely rebel and find themselves a secure marriage and nunnery respectively.
The novel flits between the 20's, 70's and 90's and covers several locations. The constant switching between the decades is often distracting and I felt that it detracted from the character's development somewhat.
Ultimately I didn't feel that I was reading the book out of enjoyment but more a macabre fascination that a set of characters could be so wholly unlikeable. That, however, is perhaps the point.
I wonder if Caresse Crosby and Philip Larkin ever crossed paths. If they did, it is unlikely that the encounter will have done much to dissuade Larkin’s conviction that “They **** you up, your mum and dad”. The Heart is a Burial Ground uses the Crosby family history to explore mother-daughter relationships across four generations. It’s a sorry tale underneath all the flamboyance.
This book takes historical fact as a foundation: Caresse and Harry Crosby. The Lost Generation. If this generation was lost, what hope did the next generation have? From them, the story moves into fiction, allowing raw emotion and dynastic themes to run far freer than a straight chronicle would.
Tamara Colchester set out to write a biography in this book. She is, after all, Caresse Crosby’s great-granddaughter. However, when the characters took on a life of their own in her writing, the author began an exploration of her own imagination instead. The result is this re-imagining, the vivid characters re-named, re-written and re-inhabiting the genuine locations of Paris, Roccasinibalda and Alderney.
I’m glad that she followed this path. In this book, Colchester has been allowed to explore maternal bonds, the nature of memory and the effect of emotional legacy within a family. There are few that could relate to the very unique excesses of the Crosbys but most will recognise the sentiment in what is said and what remains unsaid.
Three timescales run through the book: the years preceding Harry’s suicide, the months preceding Caresse’s death in old age and the time preceding that of her daughter’s own demise, similarly in old age. Colchester intertwines these threads perfectly, slowly peeling away the layers of memory and pain that need to be exorcised. The expositions feel very natural since at a time of death, whether as a result of it or in expectation of it, the process of emotional unravelling is instinctive.
The small publishing house of Caresse and Harry Crosby was called Black Sun Press. It was named such as a result of Harry’s preoccupation with the sun as a motif, but is a wonderful reflection of the balance of dark and light in both this family history and this book. There is plenty of unspoken darkness here. Misused children, rejected lovers, self-destruction and abuse. But it all plays out against a backdrop of the roaring 20’s and rocking 70’s. There’s an abundance of wit, humour and sardonic banter running through this story. It’s so conflicting that it’s hard not to feel uneasy on behalf of this line of daughters.
But it’s not just about women in the world created in The Heart is a Burial Ground. We don’t hear a direct male narrative voice but they loom resonantly around the women’s consciousness. Seen through the eyes of the women, many, although not all, are deeply flawed. It is testament to Tamara Colchester’s honest writing that she expresses differing views of the same men across the generations without ever bowing to the pressure of presenting a ‘correct’ verdict. They are simply a part of the picture. If “The sins of the father are to be laid upon the children”, this book elevates those of the mother to as high a status. Caresse would have been delighted.
I re-read the Prologue after finishing this book, and advise that you do too. After knowing the characters, this passage reveals new meaning. Female familial relationships clearly form an emotional inheritance, no matter how unintended. To break out of the line of maternal formation takes a strong mind and character. The house that Tamara Colchester describes in her prologue extends still further than Caresse Crosby. Caresse broke from the oppressive ranks of Bostonian society in the same way that her granddaughters desired to break free of the pattern of decadence and disregard formed by Caresse and her daughter. And so the cycle continues.