by John Talisker
Genre: Literary Fiction / Magical Realism
Print Length: 186 pages
Reviewed by Erin Britton
The events of a summer of upheaval have far-reaching and dangerous consequences for a gifted young girl and her extended family.
John Talisker’s Heather is a slow-burning, atmospheric, and strangely troubling tale of an extraordinary young girl and a disparate group of family members over the course of a life-changing summer.
Through detailed worldbuilding and rich descriptive language, Talisker explores how being the odd one out can both be a blessing and a curse, how leaving things unsaid can have far-reaching and unexpected consequences, and how normality is rarely what it’s cracked up to be.
Eleven-year-old Heather Stewart is a startling and deeply unusual child. For one thing, she talks to the spirit of her deceased father. And he talks back. She further converses with the Moon, the Sun, the stars, and the river that flows past her temporary home on Wolfe Island in Ontario, Canada. Much more perspective than most, Heather also sees the different colored auras that surround the people she encounters:
“[Her mother] had smiled, but her eyes lied, as did the colors wreathed about her—blue and lavender, orange and tangerine, bloodless white. … The aura surrounding her had shifted; she radiated a scathing yellow with white and red like the coals in a fire, weaving and trembling when caught by the currents in the room.”
When Heather’s mother abandons her with her aunt (“coral and blue like a winter’s night”) and uncle (“swirling purple and yellow like vomit … black like the dead cat”) at their isolated home on Wolfe Island, she is strangely resigned to her new rural life and to still being viewed as odd or disquieting. However, as the summer progresses, Heather’s arresting personality and unique gifts have unanticipated effects on those around her.
As secrets from the past are slowly revealed, it becomes clear that something significant is going to happen, that a great change is coming for the whole family, but will it be to Heather’s benefit or detriment?
Heather is the quiet yet powerful story of a young girl with the courage to be different. It’s clear from the outset that there is something unusual about Heather, something that most people find disturbing, although close family members such as her grandfather perceive her differences as a gift. It’s also clear that Heather is quite comfortable with herself and the way she sees the world, including the ghosts that she seemingly communicates with.
It’s less clear what the actual issue is, however, as Talisker raises the possibility of Heather having synesthesia, which would explain some of the strange things she sees and does, but also hints that there might be something more to her condition, perhaps even something uncanny? “Heather has some very odd and distinct genetic sequences within her DNA that are not normally coded within the human genome.” At times I hoped for a bit more development in this aspect, especially in terms of people’s reactions to it.
Despite this, Talisker does provide good insight into some of the characters’ thoughts and motivations. Heather is in part told from the perspectives of Robina, Heather’s aunt, and Gavin, her late father’s brother, and these characters are particularly well developed. The specter of the unreliable narrator hangs over the story and the various secrets in play mean that people’s observations must always be questioned.
Also hanging over the story is a palpable sense of foreboding. Having been abandoned by her mother and left with relatives she barely knows immediately places Heather at a disadvantage, and Talisker does an excellent job of slowly building the understanding that she could also be in grave danger. The feeling of apprehension fostered in this regard adds to the tension of the story and creates real fear that there is something dark on the horizon.
Written in dreamy, descriptive prose that by turns puzzles and intrigues, and addressing both preternatural and upsetting themes against the backdrop of complex family relationships, Heather is an unusual and affecting novel that simultaneously engages and unsettles.
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