REVIEW: Heartsick by Dia Reeves
Dear Ms. Reeves:
I am at a loss as to how to begin to describe this weird and wonderful novel, so I’m going to start by cribbing from the Amazon blurb:
A large creepy estate, mysterious twin brothers, family secrets, a diabolical invention known as the bone machine, and a young girl who is not at all human.
Meet the Westwoods: a father whose inventions often create death and despair, his twin sons who are not above experimenting on the servants, and the daughter whose existence no one is supposed to acknowledge. A sudden infestation of ghastly creatures into their foreboding plantation home causes them to hire a lethiferist, someone who kills supernatural monsters. The problem is that newly-hired Rue, who like all her kind was born without a heart, is a supernatural monster. She’s also too short, too young, and too compassionate for the job. Compassionate toward her fellow monsters, that is; not toward humans…on whom she occasionally feeds.
Rue comes to the Westwoods’ antebellum plantation to apply for the position of lethiferist (a job Rue describes as being “an exterminator of supernatural vermin”). She doesn’t really have any experience, but she has an abiding desire to get away from her family (who threw her out, anyway), and to make some money so she can take her younger sister Nettle away as well. After dealing with a nasty monster in the music room that has killed several servants, she’s hired by John Westwood.
Rue is heartless, a kind of monster that resembles humans in form with a few key differences. She doesn’t eat (well, mostly), she has inhuman strength and healing abilities, and as her name implies, she doesn’t have a heart. The rub is that heartless *need* hearts, so they take them from humans and insert them into an open slit in their chests. Rue is soft-hearted (pun not intended, but unavoidable) and doesn’t really like this facet of her existence. She tends to wait as long as possible before swapping out a used-up heart for a new one (as heartless occasionally need to do).
Once ensconced in the manse, Rue meets the Westwood children: little Karissa (called Kissy), who’s around six, and the twins, Sterling and Stanton, who are about Rue’s own age, 17 or 18 (Rue herself is not sure how old she is, as heartless don’t seem to pay as much attention to such things as humans do). She fails to impress them on first meeting:
“She’s your idea of a lethiferist?” Sterling stabbed the pink meat on his plate like he wanted it to die. “Were they all out of labradoodles at Assassins ‘R’ Us?”
Rue susses out that Karissa is not Westwood’s daughter, since she’s dark-skinned like Rue herself and unlike the rest of the Westwood clan. She makes the mistake of calling Kissy a bastard, though it truly is a mistake – Rue is not entirely conversant in human ways (she previously lived in the dark park) and doesn’t realize the offense the phrase will give. Kissy cries and the twins immediately turn against Rue (they’re very protective of their younger sister). The faux pas is all the worse because Westwood hates Karissa (to the point where he kind of wants to kill her and she mostly stays out of his sight).
The dark park is a particularly nasty forest in the already somewhat nasty town of Portero, where two previous novels, Bleeding Violet and Slice of Cherry, were set. It’s the sort of place where just getting up in the morning can mean taking your life into your hands, as when a giant appears and begins creating mayhem in the downtown area:
Such a pretty day, despite cobblestone streets gummy with blood and the length of intestine hanging from a wrought iron balcony over one of the shops.
The Westwood home is a monument to the late Elnora, mother to Sterling, Stanton and Karissa. There are pictures of her everywhere, and it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the macabre experiments that Westwood conducts (and ropes his sons into participating in) have something to do with Elnora.
Rue takes her job as a lethiferist seriously, though she has a tendency to make friends with the monsters that lurk around the estate, and gently coax them to take up residence elsewhere, rather than simply slaughtering them. Rue is not big on slaughtering in general; it’s one of the things that estranges her from her family. Her parents wanted her to “join with” (the apparent heartless equivalent of marrying) a young man named Dodder, who never appears on the page but seems to fit his name, at least the way Rue sees him. Now they are pressing Dodder on Nettle, who seems ambivalent about the idea.
Because I loved Rue so much (did I mention I loved Rue? I really, really did) I was not super-fond of Nettle. She seemed much less human than Rue; she doesn’t even speak English very well (heartless apparently communicate telepathically with each other, so there’s no need to learn English unless you’re mingling with the outside world). Rue adores Nettle alone out of her family and wants to take her away, maybe to Paris or New Orleans or anyplace that’s different from where they are. It did seem like Rue couldn’t understand that Nettle didn’t necessarily *want* to be taken away from the family; Rue’s identification with Nettle was such that she had a hard time separating what she wanted from what she thought Nettle *should* want. But Nettle doesn’t help by kind of jerking Rue around, and even as Rue settles into life with the Westwoods and becomes involved in their (many) intrigues, she’s preoccupied with the idea of saving Nettle.
Rue makes amends for hurting Karissa and becomes close to her and the twins. At first I had a bit of trouble telling Stanton and Sterling apart, but eventually I decided that Stanton was the more cynical one whereas Sterling was a bit more sentimental. This is reflected in the brothers’ relationships with Rue, which turn romantic.
There is a lot of horror in Heartsick – death, dead bodies, unpleasant fluids, dismemberment. It’s treated as such a normal thing in this world, though, that the impact is blunted, and often even comical. It only feels slightly disturbing when Rue discovers that Westwood is feeding dead servants to his children in an effort to strengthen their souls (souls that he then tears off pieces of for his own purposes). The collection of severed heads that Grissel (Elnora’s sister and an important part in Westwood’s diabolical plans) decorates her bedroom with fails to elicit more than mild consternation. The world of Heartsick is very strange and yes, very dark, but somehow you just go with it.
This is all to say that I feel like I have to label the book “horror”, but I don’t know whether it would really upset readers who dislike horror. I’m guessing some would be okay with it but I’d advise sensitive readers to proceed with caution.
There are some recurring themes in Heartsick that resonated with me. One is the notion of “sacrifice” – Westwood is big on the idea (though rather predictably he usually expects other to be the ones making the sacrifice). Rue shows her love by making some pretty big sacrifices in the course of the book. At one point she gives up her arm (to be fair, she knows it’ll grow back, but still…) for the twins. This ties into the sometimes tricky notion of family as presented in the book. Stanton and Sterling are fiercely loyal to their father, though it’s not always clear why. Karissa is loved by the twins as family but hated by Westwood because she isn’t his. Rue wants a family but doesn’t fit in with the one she has, so she needs to figure out if she can fit in with the Westwoods’.
Souls and, of course, hearts also play a big part in the story. Rue may be a monster, but she has a soul, and she shares it generously (sometimes literally). Sometimes Rue felt like a funhouse, bloody version of Dorothy Gale and her companions. She has plenty of brains and courage, but she needs a heart and a home. I thought Rue was eminently deserving of both, so I really rooted for her.
(I also found echoes of Frankenstein in Heartsick – Westwood plays god and there’s the question of who the real monsters are.)
Criticisms? The book could have been more tightly plotted – some of the events and scenes feel random rather than a cohesive part of a larger plot. Similarly, the characters often speak to each other in a elliptical, almost non-sequiturial (is that a word?) dialogue. But if I’m honest, neither of these things really bothered me – they were part of the charm, humor and character of this book. I think I have to raise my initial grade – an A- – to a straight A.