Over the course of The Tell-Tale Heart, we watch as Patrick, an unhealthy fifty-year-old academic, changes from a grubbily sensuous, selfish egotist to someone chastened and purified, much to the sur-prise of his children and ex-partners. What’s got into him? A new heart, figuratively as well as literally; Dawson leaves no meta-phor unturned in this searching and gently philosophical novel poised on the edge of the darkness that surrounds a human life.
Although Patrick is not particularly pleasant, his thoughts, as he lies in a Cam-bridgeshire hospital, are amusing to over-hear. He has been a compulsive womaniser all his life; we register his disgruntlement that the transplant coordinator Maureen is so unprepossessing: ‘She has the hair texture of a jack Russell terrier and she’s small for a grown woman, more the size of a leprechaun.’ He notes with awe her knack for mismatching items of hideously hued clothing. The knowledge that the heart he received was that of a 16-year-old boy, killed in a motorcycle accident, ruf-fles Patrick’s genial obnoxiousness. Who is he to live, while this innocent boy died? In one startling scene, he feels as if the boy’s heart itself wants out. ‘It’s trying to get out! It’s escaping!’ he shrieks, as nurses come running. Maureen purveys some mystical ideas about remnants of donor conscious-ness transferring to patients through their new organs. Patrick finds himself won-dering where, if anywhere, the self resides: Aristotle wasn’t very impressed with the cold, wet matter of the brain. These days neuroscience is king, isn’t it? That’s where people think emotions are located. Cranio-centrism over cardio-centrism. The brain has won over the heart, you could say.’ It certainly has up to now in Patrick’s case.
Interrupting Patrick’s solipsism is a first-person account of the historical Littleport riots of 1816, which lifts the story into another dimension. Young Drew Beamish, Patrick’s donor, was descended from one of the (real-life) rioters who were hanged for protesting against oppressive landlord farm-ers. Perhaps certain qualities — stubbornness, a burning desire for justice — reside in the blood, persisting down centuries.
Another section brings us Drew himself, passionate about history and the Fens, and not too young to have suffered a broken heart. Switching back and forth between Drew’s life and Patrick’s, Dawson sketches many parallels. Country boy Drew, keen on wildlife, notes every bird movement and call; Patrick finds himself strangely moved and stirred by the sight of an owl or a kes-trel. What does it all mean? ‘What the fuck is a life — my life —for?’ as Drew puts it. I’ve … swapped my life with this strange Fen boy’s life in some way… that’s not right at all, what can a boy like that possibly have to teach me?’ Patrick is still demanding at the end of the book. Perhaps in acknowledge-ment that there can be no definitive answers to such questions, The Tell-Tale Heart melts gently away in conclusion. Perhaps a better life has been swapped for a lesser life; but, as this moving and intriguing novel suggests, the final sum amounts to a lot more than zero.