There Your Heart Lies: A Novel
“In a world of insanity, a world of nightmare, it is often impossible to distinguish love from hate.”
Insanity is a proper description of Spain in the 1930s. It was the time of a violent and destructive civil war, in which the revolutionaries themselves were divided. Mary Gordon’s latest novel, There Your Heart Lies, beautifully depicts the horrors of war and the beauty of the human heart that shines even amid darkness.
In defiance of her bigoted, Catholic, moneyed family, Marion Taylor marries the Communist-Jewish lover of her deceased brother and heads to Spain. As supporters of the resistance in Spain’s civil war, Marion and Russell are among a contingent of true believers from around the world, sent to provide medical and humanitarian aid.
Years of living under horrifying conditions and disillusionment over the infighting of the rebels leads Russell to abandon Marion in Spain. When love finds her, it is unexpected, powerful, and short lived. Left pregnant and alone, Marion is trapped in the country for over a decade.
Looking back at 92, Marion takes her granddaughter into her confidence, hoping to clear her conscience and leave the young woman with a legacy of strength to get her through a period of drifting.
As a seasoned writer of historical fiction, it is not surprising that Mary Gordon does a bang up job of painting a haunting visual picture of the horrors of the Spanish civil war. Marion’s grief over the loss of her beloved brother is palpable; her hunger and exhaustion as the war wends on and food becomes scarce is even more so: “exhaustion like a magnifying glass that enlarges and distorts, the constant ache behind the eyes, the lids demanding to be closed and the struggle against them: no, you will not close, you will not close.” Gordon’s pacing in description, mirroring Marion’s emotions here, is beautifully done.
The horror of seeing children waiting for a ration of bread and milk blown apart, disgust and pity over suppurating wounds, unexpected joy in an unlikely love, sorrow over loss of her second husband, contentment with a final love and a life well lived back in the United States—Gordon gives Marion a full contingent of believable emotion, a lifetime of feelings. Other characters are usually sketched rather than fleshed out, but it works for most of the novel, which takes place largely through Marion’s self-referential perspective.
Less successful is the secondary storyline about Amelia, Marion’s granddaughter. Though she weaves through the story, a waif with little direction, she doesn’t play a substantial role until the last couple of chapters of the book. At that point, it’s too late for Gordon to flesh out a character that a reader can care about. Her journey to Spain feels forced and ultimately pointless; it’s almost as if Gordon decided in a late draft that she needed a youthful perspective and shoehorned one in.
Read for the historical narrative about a war overshadowed by World War II, There Lies Your Heart is a lovely, well-conceived, researched, and executed novel about love, loss, and family. The insanity of war is a big enough topic for any writer to bite off, so forgive the weak modern era storyline. Mary Gordon has left big footsteps to fill for any other author writing about this era of history.