One of the novels I've been reading this month is The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers (1917-1967), and not only the title of this novel is a gem. In fact, every aspect of the book is beautifully executed - its story, its setting (a small town in Georgia USA) and, in particular, its characters. The main character is the deaf-mute John Singer, a mysterious figure who is befriended by the other characters in the book, all of whom could not be more different: an all-night cafe owner Buff Brannon, a violent alcoholic and drifter Jake Blount, a black doctor Benedict Copeland and a thirteen-year-old girl named Mick Kelly (loosely based on McCullers), whose family runs the boarding-house where John Singer lives.
The book is intensely evocative. In the course of the story I felt the melancholy, pain and frustration of the characters as if I were one of them. Loneliness, whether we like it or not, is a part of the human condition - it excludes no-one, is what the book seems to be telling us. Language is part of the problem because it is not adequate enough to express what we really mean or feel. In fact, the more we talk, the more entangled and isolated we become. How often have you found yourself trying to explain exactly how you feel but not quite getting there, particularly when it comes to matters of the heart? Or trying to explain something with that sinking feeling inside because you know your attempts are essentially futile? This experience is at the heart of McCullers' characters. To ease their pain, they visit Singer to 'discuss' their troubles, and because he cannot talk back, he seems to be the only one who understands (the irony being that this is not the case - he is just a human like everyone else!). Without his encouragement, the characters begin to idealise him. For young Mick, he is the first thing she thinks about in the morning:
"...now there was this secret feeling between them. She talked to him more than she had ever talked to a person before. And if he could have talked he would have told her many things. It was like he was some kind of great teacher, only because he was a mute he did not teach. In bed at night she planned about how she was an orphan and lived with Mister Singer - just the two of them in a foreign house where in winter it would snow. " (p.243)
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is a deeply wise and compassionate book full of knowledge of what it means to be human. It really struck a chord (or two) with me. And to think McCullers was only twenty-three when she wrote it.
Don't forget to check out what everyone else is reading over at the The Year in Books...