Friday, 10 May 2013

Heat Lightning – Helen Hull

I really don’t know what we’d do without Persephone Books. Their reprints of forgotten literary treasures are a source of such pleasure to their squillions of readers, and by virtue of typically being set in the past (which was the present, of course, when they were written), they provide wonderful escapism from our contemporary woes.

Which is exactly what we get in Helen Hull’s 1932 novel Heat Lightning, in which protagonist Amy seems to have more woes than the combined characters in EastEnders. All shoehorned into the space of one dusty week.

Amy returns to a sleepy Midwestern town to spend some time with her family – having left her husband and children at home in New York after a heated row, although we never discover the source of the row. Regardless, it is the catalyst for sending Amy back to her family… where she arrives to find scenes of barely controlled calamity.

Her sister has just given birth to another baby, despite her good-for-nothing husband being out of work, and the couple already having more children than they can possibly afford. Her cousin Tom is suspected of having got the house maid pregnant, and of introducing poor Curly to his illicit alcohol supplies. While Amy’s matriarchal grandmother is trying her best to rule over her wayward clan from the back seat of her treasured motorcar. 

And that’s just the start of it.

Over the course of the week in Heat Lightning, Helen Hull guides us through the topsy turvy times of this sprawling family, all seen through the anxious eyes of Amy. The weather is boiling, and the atmosphere in the pages is brooding and stifling at times, intentionally so to urge us into sympathy with poor Amy.

Helen’s writing in Heat Lightning is beautifully descriptive, and she has a fantastically lyrical turn of phrase to describe households, characters and settings… all of which really place the reader inside the constricting belly of the novel. While the subjects Heat Lightning deals with may seem like minor concerns, it is the mundanity of the concerns that makes them so compelling… because, unlike the dramas in EastEnders, these are all issues that could easily affect every single one of Helen’s readers. 

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