This is a fascinating historical novel which takes in several of the more nefarious trades of Britain in centuries past as part of its story. Using interwoven bildungsroman narratives, Keaney focuses on the idea that hardship and violence can dog a childhood, wherever you are. Anne, growing up in London in terrible poverty, is forced to turn to her own resources in order to survive; Tuah is captured from his unnamed island as part of the global slave trade and traded until he reaches London; a young Thomas De Quincey experiences forms of cruelty and neglect peculiar to a harsh upper class English family. In different ways, all three will be involved in some way in the flourishing opium trade. Of course, it is De Quincey who gave us Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1821), and Keaney has used elements of this long essay as a starting point for the characters of his young Thomas and his relationship with Anne.
One of the initial strengths of this novel is the distinct voices Keaney adopts. This, particularly effective in the early stages of his novel when all three characters are children, becomes less marked as Anne, Tuah and Thomas grow older and their stories begin to merge. But it is at this same point that the links between their stories really start to work and the reader can appreciate the impact of the opium trade and the devastating popularity of laudanum in early Nineteenth Century London. Keaney creates a detailed sense of sensation in his novel, reinforcing the idea that, for many, this potent mixture of opium and alcohol, offered an escape from harsh existences. In a more optimistic vein, reading is also recognised as a means of alleviating or transcending hardship – this is the cultural world which sees the publication of Coleridge’s and Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads – but the practical need for survival may sometimes make this feel a cold comfort.
It struck me that whilst this is a historical novel, and Keaney’s closely observed details mean that the reader is fully immersed in his historical London, all of the trades involved are still horribly present in our world today. Keaney’s writing is vivid in its depiction of the terrible violence and cruelty all three protagonists witness and experience as they struggle to survive. Help, for all three, comes from unexpected quarters, but it is usually a fragile security. Everything can be traded and nothing is safe. Indeed, early on, Thomas’ sadistic older brother even tells him, ‘The basis of taxation in Greenhay [the family home] is obedience.’ It’s often an unsettling read but Keaney also brings a warmth to many of his memorable main characters. I heartily recommend it.
The Alphabet of Heart’s Desire is published by Holland House on 16 Nov 2017. Thanks to Netgalley for my ARC.