Black Heart Blue by Louisa Reid
This was a very tricky review to write, for reasons that’ll become obvious. I really hope I’ve done the book justice though.
Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd
ISBN: 9780141342702 or 9780718158781
Hepzhi and Rebecca are twins. Identical, in fact, except for Rebecca’s facial disfigurement. This makes her a target for their cruel, pseudo-religious parents. The two girls have been homeschooled all their lives by their ultra-religious (read, fanatical) parents in order to ‘protect’ them, the spiteful The Mother and the abusive The Father. However, after a busybody’s suggestion that the girls are missing out by not being in a regular school with teens their own age, the parents give in. Hepzhi immediately finds herself having to play catch up with all the regular social norms other teens her age face, such as fashion, pop culture and, in the case of girls, bitching. Rebecca though is shy and withdrawn, mostly as a result of her always being compared with her beautiful twin and The Father’s constant accusations that her birth disfigurement is a result of her being inherently sinful in nature. She retreats to the library while Hepzhi plots and plans ways to appear normal to her new friends and, more importantly, to her new love Craig. But then Hepzhi dies, and Reb is left to face her parents alone and not even her new work helping at her local old folk’s home may be enough of an escape for her.
This is not a light read. Abuse, rape, neglect, death – name any tragedy of human interaction and it’s in here. I almost don’t want to say I enjoyed it, because I shouldn’t enjoy a read when it’s subject matter is this. I couldn’t put it down though, which is unusual for me because this really didn’t sound like my sort of read to start with. I’m more of an adventure and sci-fi fan, not a tragedy fan (although I know plenty of people who are). But several hours later and I’d finished it, and it’s not many books that can be completely not-my-cup-of-tea and still keep me reading it over several hours, especially when it’s such stark subject matter.
Oddly enough, for a book that features two fanatically and hypocritically religious people, there’s really very very little religion in this book. It’s not even mentioned I think which religion it is that The Father and The Mother are such rigorous believers of and it’s obvious to anyone reading that the Mother and the Father are merely using it as an excuse to be thoroughly abusive and controlling of their two daughters. It’s a story about oppression and the desperate measures people can go to in order to avoid it and gain what small independence they can. It’s not a story about religion, that’s just the means to an end for The Mother and The Father. It’s also about naivety, and as two homeschooled teens from an oppressive household dominated by an abusive father, Hepzhi and Reb couldn’t be more naive. This is what makes Hepzhi’s death so tragic, especially as the story unfolds and you gradually find out exactly how and why she died. She gets bolder and bolder, you almost start to dislike how much she grows in comparison to the always shadowy Reb and dominates her, but ultimately she is still so naive that her death really does almost make something break inside of you. I couldn’t read this book in one sitting, I had to set it aside every now and then just to take a breather, it’s that intense.
Interestingly, someone on Twitter recently (I’m sorry, I’ve completely forgotten who, my apologies) said that they thought the ending was a bit predictable and, to an extent, they might be right. It is all tied up a bit too neatly at the end and you do find yourself wondering sometimes just how likely this all is. BUT (and this is a big BUT), it is still a very good read. You get so involved with the characters, you can’t help it, you really end up rooting for them even though you know Hepzhi is dead. And even though it is all wrapped up perhaps a tad too tidily at the end, I give full credit to the author in that you can see how it couldend that way. It makes sense, and it led to a far more satisfying ending than I thought I would be getting at the start of the book. And no, that doesn’t mean it all ends happily ever after – I’m not going to give that away!
Although the content could easily make a lot of people balk, I’d say this is worth considering for a PSHE lesson for older pupils, say 16-18 years old. It’s a very mature read but it’s one you’d get SO much discussion out of and I’m sure it could be used a s a comparison text with another novel. Perhaps something else that looks at dominance and independence, The Wasp Factory maybe, by Iain Banks? Granted, it’s a long time since I read it, but maybe that would work? I’m not sure, but it’s worth considering whether this book could be looked at in more detail this way.
Find it here
The author’s website – just found out it’s nominated for an award! Congratties!