Reviews /

Where the Heart Should Be

Authored by Sarah Crossan
Published by Bloomsbury Publishing PLC

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Sarah Crossan’s latest verse novel (and her first work of historical fiction) is a stunning, heartbreaking love story set in 1840s Ireland during the Great Hunger. Where the Heart Should Be is the story of Nell Quinn, a teenage girl from a tenant farming family in County Mayo, who goes to work as a scullery maid at the Big House, where she meets John Browning, the English nephew and heir of Lord Wicken. The story of forbidden love across social divides may be a familiar one but here it lends itself to a powerful exploration of a particularly dark chapter in human history.

Crossan has asked readers not to refer to this period as the ‘potato famine’; as she points out in her author’s note, while it was triggered by potato blight, there was enough food to feed everyone, and the ensuing famine (which killed over one million Irish people and led a further two million to emigrate) was a result of the unfair distribution of food and political choices made by politicians in Westminster. This is starkly presented through Nell’s position in the Big House where crates of champagne are delivered and meat is fed to the dogs while her family and neighbours starve as their crops fail. As Nell observes after clearing away the leftovers of one seven-course banquet:

Such abundance,
and waste,
while many of his tenants’ children
wither away.’

Lord Wicken’s indifference is immediately shown when Nell is warned that ‘if you pinch so much as a grain of wheat, / the landlord will have you whipped’, and it is impossible to read this without feeling a deep sense of rage at his cruel and callous disregard for human suffering. This is not just a story about one villain, however, but about a political system that prioritises the profits of the rich over the lives of the poor; Crossan documents many other injustices, from bailiffs burning the roofs of evicted families’ homes to prevent them returning, to the decision to continue exporting grain whilst sending soldiers and weapons over from England to quell the growing protests and uprisings (‘We need food / but instead / they sent a swarm of soldiers.’) The best historical fiction invites us to reflect not just on the past but also on the present, and (sadly) there are plenty of contemporary resonances which will occur to readers of this novel, as we still live in a world of people who are ‘starving / in the midst of plenty‘, and where the most privileged often conspire to protect their own interests rather than seeking to help others.

Alongside this harrowing depiction of the historical context, Crossan tells a gripping story. Nell and John are both compelling and believable characters who face increasingly tough dilemmas as they must choose between their love for each other and the pressure of familial expectations (though we have rather more sympathy with Nell’s family than John’s). Despite the hardship surrounding them, there is great tenderness in their relationship. As with Crossan’s previous books, her mastery of the verse novel form adds both urgency and profundity to her writing: her writing style is accessible to all but also allows for frequent moments of reflection which are devastating in their eloquence and incisiveness.

This is a book which deserves a place in every secondary school library, but would also be a great text to use in the classroom: it would make an unforgettable Year 9 class reader (yet another advantage of the verse form is, of course, that it makes the book relatively quick to read), with obvious cross-curricular links to history but also citizenship, and I will also be recommending it to my Year 10s to read alongside A Christmas Carol in order to deepen their understanding of Victorian attitudes to poverty – indeed, Lord Wicken at times reminded me of Scrooge in his unwavering faith in workhouses as a solution to famine, even as the workhouses and graveyards became full to overflowing. This might well be Sarah Crossan’s best novel to date, and I am looking forward to sharing it as widely as possible.