Some years ago I came across Thomas de Quincey, author of Confessions of an English Opium-Eater. It was a fleeting moment within my studies but he has lingered somewhere in the depths of my mind and I thought that one day I would like to discover a little more about the man who not only shared such an intimate and scandalous memoir but was also friends with William Wordsworth. I was therefore greatly delighted when Holland House publishers sent me a novel by the name of The Alphabet of Heart’s Desire by Brian Keany.
This is a novel born from true events in de Quincey’s life but it is a gloriously imagined work of fiction. When de Quincey was only 17 years old he ran away from his family and their expectations of what his future should be and spent some time in London. In Confessions of an English Opium-Eater de Quincey recounts how he met a young street girl (Ann of Oxford Street) and it was this passage that lit the spark for Keaney’s novel. I must say I thought the novel rather wonderful and it has reignited my desire to explore de Quincey further.
‘I am nobody of consequence,’ the stanger replies. ‘I am only here to give you this.’ He holds out his hand and in his open palm there nestles a small silver locket upon a chain. ‘She asked me to return it to you, at the very end.’
A visitor calls with a gift and a message from the past…
In 1802 Thomas de Quincey, a young man from a comfortable middle-class background who would go on to become one of the most celebrated writers of his day, collapsed on Oxford Street and was discovered by a teenage prostitute who brought him back to her room and nursed him to health. It was the beginning of a relationship that would introduce Thomas to a world just below the surface of London’s polite society, where pleasure was a tradeable commodity and opium could seem the only relief from poverty. Yet it is also a world where love might blossom, and goodness survive.
The lives of a street girl, an aspiring writer, and a freed slave cross and re-cross the slums of London in this novel about the birth of passion, the burden of addiction, and the consolations of literature.
A young man taken far away from everything and everyone he has ever known and sold to the highest bidder; a young girl living in squalor, who chooses to run away to a brothel rather than endure the abuse of her mother’s lover; and a young man desperate to find his own path and not be bullied into a life without passion or creativity. Through the lives of each of these characters we are taken back through the mist and fog to early 19th century London. A London where death came early to many through illness or violence. This is a richly woven story with some wonderful characters. It is incredibly vivid and beautifully written and I felt it a celebration of the written word not only in the way Brian Keaney shares the story with us, but as an underlying theme that runs through the novel.
He lived extremely frugally, spending nothing on his own attire or his appearance beyond what was necessary to preserve a degree of respectability, or on furnishings for the house or shop. Reading was his sole recreation. He brought books and he read them. In time, I came to appreciate the wisdom of this way of living, and to make it my own. Between us we sought to work our way through the great pile of books that littered the upstairs of the house. But we never came anywhere near exhausting the volumes in Archie’s makeshift library for their number was always growing.
The novel is incredibly dark at times and I can fully understand why these characters would need the written word to escape their reality. Harsh and unkind as it quite often was, yet amongst the darkness there was kindness, hope and love. Something that can be difficult to see in times of hardship. The London that Keaney brings to us is corrupt and filled with crime and selfishness. It brings to mind Wordsworth’s sonnet London, 1802 in which he laments the capital and how it has lost its way.
Milton! thou shouldst be living at this hour:
England hath need of thee: she is a fen
Of stagnant waters: altar, sword, and pen,
Fireside, the heroic wealth of hall and bower,
Have forfeited their ancient English dower
Of inward happiness. We are selfish men;
Oh! raise us up, return to us again;
An excerpt from London, 1802 by William Wordsworth
I feel that Keaney has captured the tone of the city at this time. The despair and darkness that many lived with and the effects of drug addiction. A thought provoking, interesting novel and one that I thoroughly recommend.
This is the first time I have read anything by Brian Keaney although he had written many books for children, YA and The Alphabet of Heart’s Desire is his first book for adults. I very much look forward to reading more from him in the future.
You can find out more about Brian Keaney by visiting his website here.
The Alphabet of Heart’s Desire was published by Holland House Books in November 2017.
Thank you so much to Holland House Books for sending me a review copy of The Alphabet of Heart’s Desire.