Halfway through Josephine Hart’s final novel, The Truth About Love (2009), a mother with two dead children, hospitalized by grief, recalls her psychiatrist’s decision to marry a suitable girl instead of the love of his life. ‘He got love wrong,’ she thinks dismissively. ‘What can he do well?’ The sentiment echoes back to Hart’s famous debut, Damage, narrated by a middle-aged man who disastrously fixates on his son’s girlfriend and admits, ultimately, that he’s never loved his wife. ‘Is this love’s revenge, do you think?’ asks the spurned wife. ‘Its lesson? It will not be cheated?’ ‘Love’s Revenge’, with all its bloody Jacobean overtones, is an appropriate banner for Hart’s remarkable body of work, in which the starkest psychological forces mercilessly buffet the innocent and not-so-innocent. As the psychiatrist-narrator of The Reconstructionist (2001) puts it, ‘every relationship carries within it the seeds of its own destruction.’ Hart believed in three major destructive powers: erotic obsession, grief and envy. In her six novels, she anatomized each with an unflinching boldness that was, and remains, unparalleled. Certainly, she had literary influences, particularly Irish writers like her friend Iris Murdoch, Beckett, Joyce, and her beloved Yeats. But as a contemporary novelist, Josephine Hart was peerless.
When Damage was published in 1991, having been written in six weeks, it was hailed as a masterpiece, with reviewers using words like ‘chilling’, ‘disturbing’, ‘startling’ and ‘genuinely frightening.’ Adapted by Louis Malle into a film with Juliette Binoche and Jeremy Irons, it sold more than a million copies and has been translated into 27 languages. Yet reduced to its bare bones, Damage doesn’t exactly sound like a crowd-pleasing blockbuster; it’s a slender story, set in a wealthy and privileged milieu, with an unsympathetic and sadomasochistic protagonist, a sociopathic and unlikable love interest and a plot culminating in a tragedy that brings about no catharsis. The unnamed narrator, a respectable doctor-turned-politician driven insane with desire for Anna, his son’s dark-hearted girlfriend, does not repent when their affair unleashes death and destruction, and the reader is offered no redemption, only trauma. ‘I recall that when writing the book,’ says Hart in her introduction to the new Virago Modern Classics edition, ‘I felt that anything less than this moral defiance was unworthy of him. That it would have denied the power of the obsession which had led to such tragedy.’ Evidently, Hart’s uncompromising vision filled a neglected—and unconfessed— need in our collective psyche, hitherto so accustomed to fiction in which characters see the error of their ways, moral dilemmas are thrown up and soothingly resolved, sinners get their comeuppance and the saintly prevail.
This language of Catholicism on which Hart was raised, the doctrine of sin imparted by the nuns at her convent school in Ireland, surfaces in her work as part of an irreligiously complex worldview in which savior and damnation are equally earthly concepts. (In The Stillest Day (1998), the narrator Bethesda—a turn-of-the-century artist whose steady life is turned upside down by a mad and unrequited passion—is ultimately faced with a Manichean choice: to live as a rich man’s mistress or as a nun in a convent.) For Hart, retaining faith would have been difficult given the unfathomably bad luck that afflicted her family; her baby brother died when she was six, and when she was seventeen she also lost her nine-year-old sister, who had been paralyzed by meningitis since the age of two. Just six months later another brother was playing with chemicals and was killed by an explosion. ‘It was an extraordinary thing,’ Hart has said, ‘to know that such things can be survived.’
Unsurprisingly, Hart’s plots almost invariably implicate the dead as much as those who are left to mourn, an idea she explored literally in Oblivion (1998), the central section of which is a play consisting of monologues by dead people, who voice their fear of being forgotten—the real oblivion. A particularly recurrent motif is children dying for the sins of their parents: in Damage, Anna’s fiancé Martyn falls to his death after catching her in flagrante with his father, while in Sin (1992), two little boys drown in the midst of anti-heroine Ruth’s utterly ruthless machinations. In The Truth About Love, Thomas Middlehoff, one of the novel’s three narrators, carries the blame for his son’s death from meningitis; his obsessive love of another woman, he accepts, inflicted such palpable agony on his wife as to make “holding onto life not appealing” for the boy.
Both the most autobiographical and the most ambitious of Hart’s novels, The Truth About Love begins by immersing the reader mid-stream in the consciousness of a teenage boy dying from terrible injuries. ‘Is it a scream? Sounds like a scream. Is it because my arm is gone? Can Mama see that my arm is gone? Yes! That’s why the sound is screaming. Mama must not see other parts gone as well.’ It is the 1960s, and the boy’s death from an accidental chemical explosion will resonate, eerily, with the soon to re-erupt troubles in Northern Ireland. With her trademark poetic intensity, Hart weaves the country’s history of violence into her strikingly original tale, which explores the various ways love destroys, be it via romantic torment, the corrosive pain of loss, or a dangerously warped love of nation.
The narrative alternates between the voices of Middlehoff, a German émigré intellectual working on a book about the links between the Nazis and the IRA; Olivia, the dead boy’s sister, who strikes up an uneasy friendship with Middlehoff and who is, it seems, the closest proxy ever created by Hart; and Sissy O’Hara, Olivia’s devastated mother who admits herself to hospital after her son’s death (she had already lost a daughter) and willingly undergoes electroconvulsive therapy. ‘I wonder if it’s been sanctioned by the church,’ thinks Mrs O’Hara, blackly, sardonically comical through her grief. ‘They’re not keen on psychiatry. God has all the answers and he communicates them through the priest, who probably doesn’t want any competition. I suppose it’s a surprise we ever got this hospital.’
Olivia, seventeen when her brother dies, chooses out of a sense of duty to stay at home with her bereaved family instead of going to university—a decision that Hart herself made at the same age. Eventually Olivia goes to London and becomes an actress (Hart toyed with the idea of acting before becoming a publishing executive) but, she says, ‘Although I’d left Ireland, Ireland hadn’t left me.’ Having survived the death of her siblings and the mental collapse of her mother, she must steel herself to live through her country’s decades-long cycle of bloodshed. Pondering the connection between Catholicism and terrorism, Olivia wonders if ‘those who see in the body the source of all sin might find it more acceptable to blow it to kingdom come? Which never comes. Or does it?’ That shadowy, unspoken question—what is all the suffering for?—haunts the novel, but we read for Hart’s fearless philosophical tussling, rather than for any answers. She, more than anyone, knew they didn’t exist.