MY HEART WENT WALKING begins as a gritty, family drama set among the working-class environs of Donegal and evolves into a richly textured fiction. The story unfolds over three years and is told from three perspectives; Una’s, Cullen’s and Ellie’s. The story’s opening plunges the reader directly into Una’s predicament set against the backdrop of domestic routine on a September evening which lends the crisis a suitably realistic yet surreal energy. Una is aware of the gravity of her situation but author Sally Hanan gives her voice a layer of endearing naivety, placing focus on her age and eliciting sympathy from the reader. The rising sense of hopelessness Una feels is reflected in her slightly disjointed stream of thought which liberally scatters backstory among the panic to the benefit of the reader. It’s a gripping, tangled beginning heavy with both foreboding and promise.
The differing points of view switch effortlessly and cleverly build rounded pictures of the three characters as the reader is privy not only to the others’ outlook but also their innermost thoughts and impressions. Their voices mature credibly as circumstances dictate and there is a distinct sense of personality in each. The shift of main focus to Ellie around halfway through was inspired. She begins the book as a rather unambitious, simple character, content in her surroundings. However, as the story progresses, her gentle, unassuming voice develops; balancing Una’s frustratingly stubborn single-mindedness and grounding the storms that swirl around the three of them with a steady insight sprinkled with stoic humor and acceptance. The relationship between her and Cullen is beautifully poignant with an affecting innocence that contrasts sharply with the uncomfortable dynamic between him and Una.
The supporting characters are viewed more by their actions and this keeps them deliberately in the background, giving more consequence to the three protagonists. They are, however, neatly depicted. Catherine and Robbie are written with special sensitivity, the exception being Una and Ellie’s Mother, who remains an understandably remote, contradictory figure. The prose throughout is buoyant, flowing with purpose yet nicely slowed in places with some lovely descriptive imagery. Setting the story in the 1980s provided the perfect backdrop and also gives some light-hearted nostalgic amusement. There are lots of authentic period details but they cleverly complement and never overshadow the narrative.
Just when the reader thinks there is an edge of inevitability to the narrative, it twists in a different direction making the chapters vibrate with tension and the weight of unspoken emotion. There are a number of routes the conclusion could have taken. Ms. Hanan chooses the safest and the one designed for maximum reader satisfaction although a few lingering curiosities remain.
MY HEART WENT WALKING is an absolute gem of a novel, taking readers on a compelling, entertaining, sometimes heart-breaking, but ultimately uplifting journey.
~Rose Auburn for IndieReader