Today we have Sadia Khatri, one of our reportage editors sharing her thoughts on The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers.
Someone said there isn’t a book they take more pleasure in re-reading. I cannot think of a more accurate one-line review. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. Read that title, no, sentence again. Dwell on it. Think about how beautiful, accurate it is. When I picked up the book, I wondered if the writing would live up to the title — it isn’t often the case. I had read Carson McCullers before, her novella ‘The Ballad of the Sad Cafe’, whose pages lift up the kind of heartbreaking love that we know we live with every day; her short stories — clever, profound and unbearably real — ‘A Tree, a Rock, a Cloud’ is my favourite, and I have re-read it several times.
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is her longest work, and she wrote it at 23. Why should that matter? Because the novel manages emotional complexity beyond – one would assume – a 23-year-old’s grasp. Its writer must have lived several lifetimes. I picked up the book, and was thrust into the familiar McCullers world – the mood and time she creates with her writing – American South in the 1920s – by picking up ordinary people (a deaf man, a ‘tomboy’ child) doing ordinary things. But this novel was better than her novella and short stories; there was something else going on among the usual dexterity with which she tugs the most taken-for-granted details out of fictional streets, rooms and bars; the way she narrows out those intimacies (with ourselves) we almost always leave out of our writings and conversations. It took me a while to understand. It’s a heartbreaking book. Like her other writings, it deals with love – in that melancholic shape love takes only after it has been lost – she deals with loss – the absurdity of it – the power and survival of it – but most glaringly, she deals with loneliness. Not so much the loneliness caused by others; but the loneliness that stems from our own bodies and thoughts and the ways we choose live around it (or not). Emphasis on the word choose.
McCullers is considered an important 19th century ‘woman’ writer — though the acclaim came much after her death. This is true, and the importance might stem from the fact that her writing is feminist in every sense of the word I understand today. It is feminist, it is radical, it is even political — and perhaps some days I will read it again for those reasons (I have read it twice), but most movingly, it is the closest (and therefore most heartbreaking) translation of everyday feelings, I should say everyday empathy, into language. There is no book I have taken more pleasure in re-reading.