Black Hearts, by Doug Johnstone – book review

Some writers riff on their misanthropy, parading it and inviting us to gasp at their cynicism. Such individuals would get short shrift from Dorothy, the magnificent matriarch of the tribe of Skelfs. Dorothy believes that you have to keep living your imperfect life, but that can be hard when you run a hybrid funeral directors and private investigation firm. Real life and death keep getting in the way. Black Hearts, by Doug Johnstone, is the fourth novel about Dorothy and her family, and it’s a symphony of tension, tenderness, despair, healing and hope, with a solo comprising of scales of good humour. ‘Every galaxy we know of,’ says the astrophysics lecturer, ‘has a black heart’. We draw our own conclusions about the metaphor, but Johnstone will allow no misanthropy. For every black heart in this Edinburgh novel, there is plenty more matter to find in the galaxy.

Front cover of Black Hearts by Doug Johnstone
Black Hearts by Doug Johnstone published in the UK by Orenda Books on 29 September 2022. Source: review copy

For a thriller that has matters of death at its core, it’s difficult to come away from Black Hearts without feeling inspired, uplifted and in a way spiritually laundered. I don’t really know how Johnstone pulls it off. Each chapter is told from the point of view of one of the Skelf women: Dorothy, daughter Jenny who murdered her husband in self-defence (Skelf defence?) in the previous novel and who now has to deal with the consequences, grand-daughter Hannah the PhD astrophysicist whose wife Indy does the less glamorous work at the funeral parlour. We get to know each woman well, almost too well. None of them has an unexpressed thought and every now and again offers a little popular philosophy – ‘the best we could hope for was to live a decent life…’ which could in another writer’s hands be trite or even preachy and while there’s industrial strength language and little witty and dry asides about Greggs, the old-fashioned nature of the telephone call and people who like autumn, that balances things only in terms of style: the essential message remains the same. But balance is what it’s all about: forces that are mathematically opposed. Somewhere, among the murderers, philanderers, cheats and bullies, there is goodness. If the home of the Skelfs gets burned down, its irreducible core, ‘supporting and nurturing, forever interlinked’ can never be destroyed.

Johnstone wants to know whether we’re in or out. He puts his characters in danger and their responses challenge us. When Laura, an obsessive student, starts hanging around Hannah, we think about how we might try to withdraw from a similar situation but even Indy offers some understanding. When Violet, the mother of Jenny’s ex-husband, arrives with her grief, Jenny’s approach is to point out that it could have been her that was killed. Dorothy counsels a different kindness. Some of these kindnesses land home; others have catastrophic results. We should do them anyway, it’s implied.

The fourth main character is the city of Edinburgh with its buildings and parks, traffic problems, towns old and new and at its heart its people. There’s quite a bit of detail about Edinburgh and its northern suburb Leith. But although there are shoutouts to the geography, it’s the citizens that give the city life, with over a hundred personal starts to the day in each tenement building, the energy of the university district and the different styles within the city, so that everyone can find a part of town they can call home. Everyone should belong, and we are called upon to give comfort and care.

Black Hearts is no cynical, knowing riff. It takes the messiness of human existence and finds joy within. And with Dorothy, Jenny and Hannah, Doug Johnstone provides the rhythm section to one of humanity’s best jazz trios.

Thanks to Orenda Books for the review copy.

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