The Course of the Heart by M John Harrison

Gollancz, 1992, 225 p. (As part of Anima, Gollancz, 2005.)

During their time at University, Pam Stuyvesant, Lucas Medlar and our unnamed narrator took part in some sort of experiment under the direction of a man called Yaxley after which their minds were never quite the same. They are haunted by what they call the Pleroma and Pam has visions* of a white couple, limbs always intertwined, Lucas of a dwarfish figure. These apparitions are occasionally glimpsed by the narrator. The Pleroma – or fullness – is referred to as “the muddled Christian promise of “Heaven” and contrasted with hysterema or kenoma – pain, illusion, emptiness; the life we must actually live.
The novel deals with the fallout from their youthful experience, which encompasses Pam’s marriage to Lucas, the subsequent divorce and his devotion to her when she becomes seriously ill. Between them, in pursuit of a mysterious state/entity called The Coeur, Pam and Lucas invent “Michael Ashman,” who travelled in Europe between the wars and up to the 1950s. As Pam’s condition worsens Lucas writes Ashman’s experiences down and reads them to her. Incorporating dream-like episodes and evocations of the concentration camps – especially Birkenau – these passages can slip into fantasy but also seem as “real” as the main narrative which manifests elements of the fantastic (*as above.)

Harrison has a deceptive style. His prose is eminently readable and flows past smoothly but his meaning is elusive, plastic.

He does mention Thomas à Beckett, though. The murdered Archbishop was Thomas Beckett. The “à” is not contemporary but a post-reformation creation.

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