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Posted on 11 Jun 2024 in Fiction | 0 comments

KATE KRUIMINK. Heartsease. Reviewed by Sally Nimon

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Set in an old house in the Tasmanian countryside, nothing is quite as expected in this second novel from Vogel-winner Kate Kruimink.

The first thing to say about Heartsease is that – despite its title – it is not a comforting read. This is a story about loss and love and sacrifice, and whether we can ever really know another human being, no matter how close to them we may feel. It’s also a novel about reality and perception, and how the world in which we live is as much a construction of our own making as it is constructing us in return. And it leaves us – just as it leaves its central characters – with more questions than it attempts to answer. Which is probably more reflective of real life than any fairy tale that ends with all narratives wrapped up and tied with a bow.

The story opens as sisters Ellen and Charlotte are travelling in separate cars to a grand old house somewhere in country Tasmania. They have been promised ‘a retreat of a unique nature’, free from alcohol or other distractions, but what they find is a cold, unwelcoming environment that is a great deal less than was promised.

Again and again throughout this book we are shown the contrast between what experience might lead us to expect versus what we actually find. Ellen arrives when it’s still afternoon, but already the house is wreathed in thick shadow. A large butter sculpture of a merman at the local pub proves mouldy and unappetising when inspected up close. A long-lost grandmother, now found, turns out not to be what she seems. A delicious-looking green apple seemingly offered to arriving guests reveals itself, when bitten, to be made out of foam. As Ellen – or Nelly as she is known – notes:

The night that Lot and I had left the retreat, the night we had abandoned the silent hotel to sit together in the pub, I experienced something that I couldn’t really define. It was maybe a new kind of memory, not one that had been recovered but one that had been slipped in amongst the others. I suddenly had the idea that Josh had been in my hotel room at the retreat. I could see him, clear as you like, standing and looking out the window, hands in his pockets, turning to say something.

Needless to say, Ellen’s friend and sometime partner Josh is not with them on the retreat; she has left him at home in order to spend time with her sister. Similarly, despite the fact her mother died when she was a child, her mother’s haunted, elongated face follows Ellen everywhere – the relative isolation of the retreat being no exception. In this universe, not even time or death can be counted on to behave as they should.

And death is ever-present in this narrative. Not in a morbid, frightening way, but as the realistic ending to every beginning; as the destination we will all eventually reach, no matter how diverse the different paths we tread. 

While some readers may find the non-linear nature of this narrative jarring, it works as a device to draw attention away from the what to focus more on the why and the how. The core of Heartsease is that the real lesson of death is not the fragility of human life, or the tragedy of time cut short. Rather, it is that the knowledge of where we will all eventually end should open our eyes to the possibility of life. And that we should take care how we go, because the choices we make, how we deal with this reality, will impact future generations in ways we cannot conceive.

And that is an important lesson for us all. 

Kate Kruimink Heartsease Picador 2024 PB 304pp $34.99

Sally Nimon once graduated from university with an Honours degree majoring in English literature and has hung around higher education ever since. She is also an avid reader and keen devourer of stories, whatever the genre. 

You can buy Heartsease from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW or you can buy it from Booktopia.

You can also check if it is available from Newtown Library.

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